Review: These Dividing Walls, by Fran Cooper

One Parisian summer
A building of separate lives
All that divides them will soon collapse… 

In a forgotten corner of Paris stands a building.

Within its walls, people talk and kiss, laugh and cry; some are glad to sit alone, while others wish they did not. A woman with silver-blonde hair opens her bookshop downstairs, an old man feeds the sparrows on his windowsill, and a young mother wills the morning to hold itself at bay. Though each of their walls touches someone else’s, the neighbours they pass in the courtyard remain strangers.

Into this courtyard arrives Edward. Still bearing the sweat of a channel crossing, he takes his place in an attic room to wait out his grief.

But in distant corners of the city, as Paris is pulled taut with summer heat, there are those who meet with a darker purpose. As the feverish metropolis is brought to boiling point, secrets will rise and walls will crumble both within and without Number 37…

 

These Dividing Walls is the debut novel from Fran Cooper. The story follows the inter-woven stories of the residents of Number 37, on a street in the suburbs of Paris.

What’s The Story?

Edward arrives at number 37 a grieving, lost Englishman. In an attempt to get past the sudden death of his sister, a friend has loaned him use of her apartment in Paris. As he settles into life in the apartment block, he comes to meet many other residents, each dealing with their own personal issues and hiding their own secrets.

The Review

I found this book very refreshing in that it portrays the good, the bad, and the ugly of Parisian society (and indeed society the world over). When you pick up a book set in Paris; you instinctively expect shiny arrondissements, la rive gauche, sophisticated and put-together protagonists and a rosy sheen on the French capital. What the reader actually gets in These Dividing Walls is a presentation of the normal, everyday Parisians on the outskirts of the city; away from the dazzling lights of the Eiffel Tower and the Champs Elysées.

Between them, the residents of Number 37 represent a cross-section of the sentiments, struggles and everyday trials of husbands and wives, parents and children. There are some very likeable characters, like Frédérique, the aunt of Edward’s apartment-owning friend who lives in a stunning and spacious ground floor home in the same building; working every so often in her art book shop. She brings Edward out of his solitude, recognising in him the same loss she feels in her own soul; and together they help each other to heal. In young mum Anaïs, Cooper sensitively but accurately depicts the overwhelming sea of emotions that accompanies postnatal depression; as she struggles through a life with three small children, a shell of her former self.

The underlying theme which runs throughout the book, affecting all of the characters; is that of xenophobia in an age of increased immigration, and the way this affects lives. An air of fear and anger sits over the Paris of These Dividing Walls, fuelled and exploited by far-right dissidents; denied and ignored by the richer arrondissements; and we see the characters deal with this situation in different ways. Some of the residents, who have arrived bitter and twisted into their older age; ooze spite and venom in the face of that which is different to them, others beat them down with open-minded acceptance that yes; bad things happen, but no; the actions of the few do not represent the beliefs of the many.

The rumbling undercurrent of rebellion comes to a head at the end of the book, when all the residents find themselves drawn in some way into the events taking over the city.

There is no neat wrap-up at the end of These Dividing Walls, which is another point I very much liked about this book. The final message is that, through grief, betrayal, terror; life continues forward – for the residents, as well as for us.

 

These Dividing Walls is a fantastic and contemporary debut from Fran Cooper, due for publication on 4th May.

With thanks to NetGalley and Hodder & Stoughton for the ARC.

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Review: The President’s Gardens, by Muhsin Al-Ramli

Today, I am reviewing The President’s Gardens, by Muhsin Al-Ramli (translated by Luke Leafgren). It’s a stunning and moving portrait of 3 friends and their lives through the Iraqi conflicts of the 1980s to early 2000s.

What’s it about?

Here is the publisher’s blurb for the book:

On the third day of Ramadan, the village wakes to find the severed heads of nine of its sons stacked in banana crates by the bus stop. One of them belonged to one of the most wanted men in Iraq, known to his friends as Ibrahim the Fated. How did this good and humble man earn the enmity of so many? What did he do to deserve such a death? 

The answer lies in his lifelong friendship with Abdullah Kafka and Tariq the Befuddled, who each have their own remarkable stories to tell.

It lies on the scarred, irradiated battlefields of the Gulf War and in the ashes of a revolution strangled in its cradle. 

It lies in the steadfast love of his wife and the festering scorn of his daughter. 

And, above all, it lies behind the locked gates of The President’s Gardens, buried alongside the countless victims of a pitiless reign of terror.

The Story                                                                                               

The President’s Gardens follows the lives of three friends from childhood, through conflict and war, up to the Iraq War from 2003. Ibrahim ‘The Fated’, Abdullah ‘Kafka’ and Tariq ‘The Befuddled’ meet as toddlers and become the best of friends, always together; until they are separated by the Iraq-Iran war of 1980. When they are finally all brought together once again, the impact of the years of conflict have changed them forever.

The book opens with an early morning scene in which a shepherd, Isma’il, discovers the heads of 9 of the village men in banana crates in the main street; one of these men being Ibrahim. From that point, the book returns back to the three friends’ childhood, and tracks the story back to that day.

The Review

There is a LOT to love about The President’s Gardens. It is a powerful, powerful book.

Lots of details, characters and events are thrown at the reader over the first few chapters, which are then re-visited and explained over the course of the book. I did find it difficult to keep track for a while – to the point that I wished I had written myself notes on who was who – but after a while the story settles down into an easier to follow narrative.

Al-Ramli’s descriptions and portrayals of Iraqi life are detailed and intricate. The closeness and havoc of village life and relationships are presented in sharp contrast to the opulent, indulgent grandeur of Baghdad and the Presidential palaces of the second half of the book. There is an obvious scorning of the excessive wealth of the President and those in power around him; with a whole pages dedicated to a monologue describing the vast palaces with golden taps and door handles, cars, gardens, swimming pools and portraits.

The overwhelming and all-destroying spectre of war is a constant in this book, and shapes the characters of the 3 protagonists in different ways. Al-Ramli does not shy away from graphic depictions of the treatment of enemy soldiers and prisoners of war, and there were several points where I had to look away from the page for a moment before I could continue reading. However, there are also some truly beautiful moments in the book – Ibrahim’s final day with his wife, for example; is incredibly emotive and reminiscent of a couple in the first throes of love, as opposed to a long-married husband and wife.

The characters of the three protagonists are all very different. The backbone of the story; Ibrahim accepts everything that happens around him – the war, his losses, the turn of events that brings him to his death – as fate, and the way things must be. This is how he gets through his life, and the cruel twists of his fate that it continually throws at him.

Abdullah is given to seeing the worst in every situation, and after his time in the war loses all interest in everyday life, longing only for peace.

Tariq, spared the horrors of battle as a religious leader and teacher, becomes adept at working situations to his own advantage. Although of the three he has the least presence in the book, he is the catalyst for more than one significant event or turning point, which has major implications for his friends.

The book brings itself back to the events of the opening chapter to finish, picking up with Tariq, Abdullah, and Ibrahim’s daughter Quisma; and their actions following Ibrahim’s death. The story ends with a ‘to be continued’ which I was not expecting and not at all ready for – the reader’s investment in the characters becomes absolute, and I was really hoping to know how things ended up for the 2 remaining friends. Here’s hoping that the sequel can follow very very soon.

The President’s Gardens is published on April 20th by Quercus Books, and is available to order on Amazon now.

Many thanks to Quercus Books / MacLehose Press and Net Galley for the ARC.

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About the Author

Muhsin Al-Ramli is an Iraqi writer, poet, academic and translator, born in the village of Sudara in northern Iraq in 1967. He has lived in Madrid since 1995. The President’s Gardens was longlisted for the I.P.A.F. (known as the ‘Arabic Booker’) in 2010. Al-Ramli was a tank commander in the Iraqi army during the Gulf War, a period of life which has greatly informed his writing. His brother, the writer Hassan Mutlak, was hanged in 1990 for an attempted coup d’état.

Blog Tour: Faithless by Kjell Ola Dahl

Hello and welcome to day 4 of the #Faithless blog tour! Today, it’s my turn 🙂

The latest book in the Oslo Detective Series by Kjell Ola Dahl, Faithless is published by Orenda Books, and translated by Don Bartlett.

I’ve never read anything of Dahl’s before, but as a father of Nordic Noir I thought perhaps I had better acquaint myself before I wrote this review! First published in 1993, Dahl has written 11 novels, the most successful being the books of the Oslo Detective Series, of which Faithless is the fifth instalment.

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The Blurb

Here’s the publisher’s blurb on the book:

Oslo Detectives Gunnarstranda and Frølich are back… and this time, it’s personal…

When the body of a woman turns up in a dumpster, scalded and wrapped in plastic, Inspector Frank Frølich is shocked to discover that he knows her… and their recent meetings may hold the clue to her murder. As he begins to look deeper into the tragic events surrounding her death, Frølich’s colleague Gunnarstranda finds another body, and things take a more sinister turn. With a cold case involving the murder of a young girl in northern Norway casting a shadow, and an unsettling number of coincidences clouding the plot, Frølich is forced to look into his own past to find the answers – and the killer – before he strikes again.

Dark, brooding and utterly chilling, Faithless is a breath-taking and atmospheric page-turner that marks the return of an internationally renowned and award-winning series, from one of the fathers of Nordic Noir.

The Story

With this being the fifth book in the series, I was wondering if I would be at a bit of a disadvantage having not read the first four, but I wasn’t at all. Faithless opens with a stake-out that introduces two of the main characters: Frank Frølich, our detective; and Veronika Undset, whose murdered body is shortly to be found wrapped in plastic in a skip. The investigation into Veronika’s murder is just one part of a spider’s web of stories which run alongside each other towards the grand finale.

I did feel that the story was a little slow in parts, but there are tense sections scattered throughout that more than make up for this. In the second half of the book events start to speed up, and all of the loose ends which you’ve been wondering about come together in some truly gripping narrative.

I found the translation for the most part very good; although there were a couple of phrases in there that you don’t often find in written English – the one which stuck out most for me was ‘to the nth degree/for the nth time’.

The Characters

I wasn’t sure what to make of the characters to begin with – they are a bit of an eclectic bunch! Frølich is an individual who is personally involved with the investigation, and often seems morally challenged through the course of the book. His approach to his work is passionate but impatient, often bordering on reckless. A past which he tries so hard to avoid comes out of the shadows to haunt him, brought to life by the reappearance of an old friend.

Gunnarstranda seems to have more of a regard for the rules, but we see even him bend them from time to time. Lena, a younger police officer with a questionable choice of romantic relationships, is full of confidence and belief in her own opinions and abilities – a sound outlook to have, but not if it gets you in above your head and into a tricky situation, like the one Lena finds herself in towards the end of the book. I get the feeling she will come into her own in the next book.

There is a sense of rapport between the characters that you would expect to find in a group of people who’ve worked together for a while; and the book is peppered with humorous moments alongside the drama. Gunnarstranda wondering why on earth people insisted on changing into gym gear in the office was one of my favourite points, as I am guilty of this all the time!

The story is told through the eyes of all three of these characters, which means we get to see lots of different events and viewpoints, but it does mean that you sometimes have to remind yourself where one character’s story ended up last time you saw them…. That’s a standard issue for me though, to be fair 🙂

So what did I think?

Overall, I found this an enjoyable read – there are some serious twists in here, and though it took me a little while to get into it I was gripped by the end (what an end!). The only thing I felt this book lacked was more of a sense of place. Perhaps it’s because I have come to associate Scandi Noir with rolling, detailed descriptions of forest, lake and sea; or perhaps it’s because the last book of this kind I read was very heavy on setting-the-scene descriptions; but Faithless just didn’t have enough of it for my liking. I want more of beautiful Norway! Really though, that’s my only gripe.

Big thanks must go to Karen Sullivan at Orenda Books and blog tour maestro Anne Cater for providing me with this review copy and inviting me to my very first blog tour! Faithless is published on 15th April. Keep your eyes peeled for more blog tour reviews coming up:

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About the Author 

One of the fathers of the Nordic Noir genre, Kjell Ola Dahl was born in 1958 in Gjøvik. He made his debut in 1993, and has since published eleven novels, the most prominent of which is a series of police procedurals cum psychological thrillers featuring investigators Gunnarstranda and Frølich. In 2000 he won the Riverton Prize for The Last Fix and he won both the prestigious Brage and Riverton Prizes for The Courier in 2015. His work has been published in 14 countries. He lives near Oslo.

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Planning a Literary-Themed Wedding

This Saturday (yes, April Fools Day – yes, it was deliberate!), myself and Mr Knox celebrated our 1st wedding anniversary – madness! One year on from the most amazing, fun day. With that in mind, I thought I would put together a short post on integrating a love of books into your big day.

We are both huge bookworms (although I will confess that my shopping habits are making the bookshelves creak a lot more than his!) and so we decided very early on that we wanted this to be one of the ‘themes’ for the wedding. As we are also very into our running, this was the other theme for the day. I was a little bit worried that they might not run very well together (no pun intended) but it actually worked out really well – the invites and table numbers were in the style of running bibs, and the decor and favours were all bookish goodies 🙂

Here are a few tips for bringing the written word to the wedding table.

The Ceremony Reading 

There are so many beautiful passages from all kinds of books which would make perfect readings for during the wedding ceremony. We got married at our venue, and the ceremony itself was pretty short, but this was a lovely interlude. A quick search on Pinterest or Google should yield lots of results; wedding blogs like Love My Dress also offers some good ideas. We went for the below extract from Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, one of the most beautiful pieces in the book; in my opinion… I’d say it made me cry, but I’d already cried so much during the ceremony that I’m not sure it would be 100% accurate 🙂

“Love is a temporary madness, it erupts like volcanoes and then subsides.  And when it subsides you have to make a decision.  You have to work out whether your roots have so entwined together that it is inconceivable that you should ever part.  Because this is what love is.

Love is not breathlessness, it is not excitement, it is not the promulgation of promises of eternal passion.That is just being in love, which any fool can do.  Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away, and this is both an art and a fortunate accident.

Those that truly love have roots that grow towards each other underground, and, when all the pretty blossoms have fallen from their branches, they find that they are one tree and not two.”

Decorations 

If you grew up in a house that was anything like my childhood home; there are piles of hardback Reader’s Digest books scattered everywhere, with a few other classics for good measure. This was great when it came to planning the table decor, as it meant I could just borrow all of these to make some central table displays, and had minimal need to buy any. Thanks Mam and Dad!

We also had some book bunting left over which the girls had made for my hen do (must have taken forever – there was so much of it!) so we used this to decorate the edges of the room/mantlepieces etc.

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Second Hand Book Favours 

On one of my Pinterest binges looking for wedding inspiration, I came across lots of photos of second-hand books being given as favours for wedding guests. We loved this idea and decided to go for it – for all 120 guests! Thankfully we were very lucky in that the best man’s mam donated lots of books from the library she worked at. For the rest, I scoured the charity bookshop on Gosforth High Street, where I was able to pick up a lot of books in near-perfect condition for £2-£3 each. Result.

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Book Confetti 

Perhaps not suitable for all venues – a lot have rules about the kind of confetti that can be thrown on their grounds – but if you can bring yourself to sit with a heart punch and deface a paperback then this looks lovely scattered on tables, or on display in jars around the hall and corridors.

I hope that gives a few ideas 🙂 There’s so much that could be done to create a ‘bookish’ wedding – I saw one couple who had made a ceremony arch entirely out of books! Now that’s dedication! If you’re planning a wedding currently, good luck and ENJOY! 🙂

P.S. The images in this post are by our lovely wedding photographer Katie Byram.