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text SPOILER ALERT! 2020-06-04 19:48
Reading progress update: I've read 221 out of 380 pages.
L'énigme des Blancs-Manteaux - Jean-François Parot

(French text, maps and images below. / Texte français, cartes et images en bas.)

 

Well, consider me well and truly hooked at this point.  There are a few mighty convenient and improbable conincidences --

e.g., the "inner voice" that guides Nicolas to more or less effortlessly draw pretty much the entire plot out of a wily old madam, and ink-stained footprints showing the path that a ransacking intruder has taken through Descart's home

(spoiler show)

-- surely you could have done better than that M. Parot?  (I also could seriously have done without Nicolas's -- and the author's -- patronizing attitude towards Awa and her "decapitated rooster" fortune telling stunt.  And towards Catherine on that same occasion, for that matter.)  But at least we didn't also get the "[shocking things happening to the hero during a] dark and stormy night" cliché on the one occasion when the temptation to use it must have been huge, and I confess that both the action and the wealth of historical detail have rather drawn me in.  And it certainly helps to now also know why de Sartine felt he had to select an investigator from outside the ranks of the established police force (even if neither that nor Nicolas's quick understanding and intelligence completely accounts for quite such a young, inexperience choice).  By and large, though, I am really enjoying this book, and I am looking forward every day to the time I've set aside at night (and / or in the morning) for this buddy read.

 

That being said, even before reaching the book's halfway point -- what with the things that Nicolas had learned at the Dauphin couronné and from Antoinette, and the subsequent discoveries at Vaugirard -- it seemed to me that the mystery was pretty much solved,

and the only things remaining to be discovered at that point were the hiding place of the stolen papers, the exact role of Semacgus (if any), and the location of the final body to be found (which I'm sure we know at this point, too, even if Nicolas hasn't clued into it yet),

(spoiler show)

and I think so even more now that I'm slightly past the halfway point.  Can it really take another 150+ pages to unveil the rest of what we've yet to learn?  The Golden Age mystery writers published entire novels of not much more than that length ...

 

Final side note for now: I've learned a new verb -- "bastiller".  I was aware of the Bastille, of course, whose name, however, my mom's battered Petit Larousse informs me, derives from the erstwhile "bastir" ("bâtir" in modern French) -- so the name actually just denotes that it's a building -- whereas from the context it's clear that "bastiller" means "to imprison".  So the Bastille, much more than even Le Châtelet and the Conciergerie, was synonymous with "prison", to the point that it, in turn, gave rise to the use of a corresponding verb.  Which then again, of course, only goes to underline why it played such a symbolic role in the French Revolution ...

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Eh bien, on peut me considérér entièrement captivée de l'action du livre à ce moment.  Il y eu quelques coïncidences assez bien convenientes et improbables,

telles que la "voix intérieure" qui guidait Nicolas à tirer plus ou moins le complot entier d'une rusée propriétaire de maison infâme, et les empreintes encrées signalant le chemin  pris par un pilleur pénétré à la maison de Descart

(spoiler show)

-- sûrement, vous auriez sait faire mieux que ça, M. Parot?  (J'aurais bien voulu renoncer aussi à l'attitude paternalisante de Nicolas -- et de l'auteur -- vis-à-vis Awa et son coup de prophésie au coq décapité.  Et, en ailleurs, vis-à-vis Catherine à la même occasion.)  Mais du moins on nous épargne le cliché "[des chocs souffert par le héros durant une] nuit sinistre et orageuse" au moment où la tentation de l'user doit avoir été la pire, et il me faut admettre que l'action autant que la richesse de détail historique m'ont bien sucée dans le livre.  Et bien sûr ce procès a été facilité aussi par le fait que maintenant nous savons pourquoi de Sartine le pensait indispensable de choisir un investigateur du dehors la police établie (même si ni ceci ni la compréhension rapide et l'intelligence de Nicolas expliquent entierement le choix d'un homme tellement jeune et inexpériencé).  Tout-en-un, pourtant, le livre me fait grand plaisir, et je me réjouie chaque jour au temps que j'ai réservé pour ce buddy read à la nuit (et / ou au matin).

 

Tout ceci étant dit, même avant d'avoir achevé la moitié du livre -- en vue de ce que Nicolas avait appris au Dauphin couronné et d'Antoinette, et ses découvertes suivantes à Vaugirard -- il me paraissait que le mystère était plus ou moins résolu,

et les seules choses à découvrir ètaient la cachette des papiers volés, le rôle exacte de Semacgus (s'il en avait un), et l'endroit du corps final à trouver (lequel je suis sûre nous connaissans déjà aussi à ce moment, bien que Nicolas ne l'ait pas encore entendu),

(spoiler show)

et je pense le même d'autant plus maintenant que j'aie lu un peu plus qu'à demi du livre.  Est-ce que ça prendra vraiment encore une 150e de pages de nous réveiller ce qui nous reste à découvrir?  Les auteurs des romans policiers de l'Âge Doré ont publié des romans entiers de pas trop plus que ce calibre ...

 

Commentaire marginal final pour le moment: J'ai appris un verbe nouveau -- "bastiller".  Je connaissais La Bastille, naturellement, le nom de laquelle pourtant, le Petit Larousse battu de ma mère m'enseigne, descend de l'ancien "bastir" ("bâtir" en français moderne) -- donc son nom seulement dénote, en effet, qu'il s'agit d'un bâtiment -- pendant que du contexte c'est clair que "bastiller" signifie "emprisonner".  Donc c'étail La Bastille, beaucoup plus que même Le Châtelet et la Conciergerie, qui était synonyme de "prison", au point d'engendre, en revanche, un verbe correspondant.  Tout ce qui, bien sûr, de son tour seulement va à souligner son rôle symbolique dans la Révolution française ...

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

One of Parot's historical notes contains a "by the way" reminder that Nicolas's boss, Antoine de Sartine, was a historical person; he really was the Paris Chief of Police (and, for all practical purposes, the city's true administrator) during the time in which this book is set.  He was reputed as a scrupulously fair and forward-thinking magistrate and a proponent of law and order, who however also didn't shy away from locking people up or taking other measures on the basis of "lettres de cachet" (unappealable extraordinary orders signed by the King or by himself), and who used a wide network of spies, both abroad and at home.  His reputation preceded him to such an extent that his help and advice was frequently also sought by foreign governments and police forces.  (According to Wikipedia, "once, a minister of Maria Theresa wrote to Sartine asking him to arrest a famous Austrian thief who was thought to be hiding in Paris. Sartine replied to the minister that the thief was actually in Vienna, and gave the minister the street address where the thief was hiding, as well as a description of the thief's disguise.")

 

At about the halfway point of our novel, Nicolas overhears a conversation between de Sartine and another official (whose identity remains undisclosed), which -- while chiefly about the disastrous French losses during the Seven Years' War and the role of Mme. de Pompadour -- also foreshadows de Sartine's later role as Secretary of State for the Navy and architect of the new French naval forces which, in decades to come, would prove such a formidable adversary to those of Great Britain.

 

The set of books above right shows de Sartine's coat of arms, with the representation of three sardines in the center (phonetically representing his name).

 

Pharaon (Faro) -- the popular card game mentioned repeatedly in the novel, especially in connection with the goings-on at the Dauphin couronné.  (Another repeatedly-mentioned game is Lansquenet.)

 

Nicolas would probably not recognize the Faubourg Saint-Honoré of today (the location of the Dauphin couronné in the novel) -- it, and especially the rue du Faubourg Honoré, is one of the most exclusive addresses of Paris nowadays, where haute couture, art galleries, embassies, and even the entrance of the Palais de l'Élysee are all sitting right next to each other. -- (For reference, on the map the "P" of "Paris" again represents the Place de l'Hôtel de Ville / formerly Place de Grève; Le Châtelet would have been beyond the second bridge to the left of there.)

 

Église Saint-Eustache -- now and then, one of the unmissable sights in the Quartier des Halles -- and its location with reference to the novel's other key locations in the centre of Paris.

 

For those who are already at this point in the novel: the rue Montmartre is just north of the église Saint-Eustache and the Quartier des Halles.

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review 2020-06-04 12:48
The Parisian
The Parisian - Isabella Hammad

by Isabella Hammad

 

I'm always a little put off when a story starts with a list of characters. It's not a play! While I can see that keeping the family groups straight is needed, a list is meaningless until I start getting into the story. So, I skipped past and started reading chapter one.

 

The protagonist is Palestinian and is on a ship to Marseille. The mixing of Middle Eastern and French culture becomes quickly apparent. I found the subject interesting and the main character sympathetic, but the writing style was tedious and I often found my attention wandering off.

 

Since I don't speak French or Arabic, a lot of the lines were over my head. I'm also not that familiar with the history involved and I didn't follow it as well as I needed to, to keep up.

 

Overall I think there were too many characters and not enough context to put the reader into the period.

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review 2020-06-04 12:45
The Other Einstein
The Other Einstein: A Novel - Marie Benedict

by Marie Benedict

 

This is Historical Fiction, but based on a real person who was the first wife of Albert Einstein and one of the few women of her time to have an education in Physics. Her name was Mileva Marić.

 

The story is told in first person and for me seemed very realistic, showing Mileva's background, interaction with parents and thoughts about achieving her educational ambitions, as well as her cultural influences in dealing with expectations for women, the interest of Albert Einstein, and her treatment at the Polytecnic in Switzerland where she studied as well as her belief that a foot deformity made her 'unmarriageable'.

 

I found the author's voice very engaging and soon got caught up in her tale, even looking up a few mentions of Mileva's life on Wikipedia. The story is mostly fiction based on bare bones scaffolding of known facts, yet it felt very plausible all the way through. Albert's personality came across as witty and charming in the beginning and I half fell in love with him myself, but later in the story he becomes an unsympathetic character which might be less than fair to him. Still, looking up what facts are known, why didn't he ever meet his daughter? Why did the relationship go awry in a time when divorce held almost as much stigma as unwed motherhood?

 

Anyone who has been in a relationship that went wrong will recognise the pattern of how these things often happen. Whether Albert used his wife's ideas and took full credit is something history and science will probably never be able to answer, but in the time and place where it is set, it is easy to imagine that any contribution from an intelligent female would likely be subsumed by a husband with the proper qualifications.

 

Mileva's life is not a happy one and history doesn't give us a happy ending for her, but I very much enjoyed reading this story. Factual or not, the writing was very engaging and 'm glad to know of the existence of this woman whom I had never heard of before. Whatever contributions she might or might not have contributed to Einstein's theories, she stands out as a strong woman in history who dared to step into the male preserve of higher education, helping to forge the way for many women in generations to come. I will definitely be interested in anything else this author writes.

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review 2020-06-04 10:32
The Pillars of the Earth
The Pillars of the Earth - Ken Follett

by Ken Follett

 

I was warned that this book is long, so I've taken it slowly between other reads. It's a Historical Fiction set in The English Civil War, starting 1135. Tom Builder is a mason with a dream of building a cathedral. Earlier, two brothers, Phillip and Francis, see their parents slaughtered by English soldiers and before the men kill the children too, the local Abbott steps in and takes them to the sanctuary of the monastery. They grow up as monks, but both are sent into the world to do God's work.

 

It's a story of political savagery, corruption among monks, redemption and burning ambition. There are a few triggers here because people in that era could be brutal and life was hard. The historical accuracy is good, apart from the reactions of women. The author really seriously does not understand women!

 

Despite that, the story itself kept me interested and a lot of my other books have been neglected for it. The primary character is Phillip, who becomes Prior of Kingsbridge. Much of the story is set around his desire to see a cathedral built in his village, though monastery funds are insufficient. Tom builder comes along and desperate for food and any kind of work, they strike a deal.

 

There is a lot going on elsewhere in the story, but it all ties together in the sage of building Kingsbridge cathedral and the people who support or oppose the project. One important character is Aliena, the daughter of a deposed Earl who finds her way in life, overshadowed by an oath to her father to restore her younger brother to the Earldom. The man sitting in the chair, William Hamleigh, is a vile man of violence. Any more I could say about him would give spoilers.

 

The political intrigue involves the church as much as the king and nobles. People believe unquestioningly and the disapproval of a priest can strike the fear of Hell fire into even the highest placed personages.

 

The story really kept my attention, though I felt an important plot point late in the story was too rushed and female reactions, especially to sex, were totally unrealistic and reminded me of the cliché bad 1970s porn movies.

 

Very good Historical Fiction for the not too squeamish.

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review 2020-06-03 12:31
The Last Refuge of the Knights Templar
The Last Refuge of the Knights Templar - William F. Mann

by William F. Mann

 

This was totally different from what I expected. I have a historical interest in the Knights Templar, who were disbanded and mostly executed in 1309. I didn't know that the Freemasons had adopted the name for their own organisation, although I've seen other modern groups do the same.

 

This story is set in American Civil War times and centered on a historical figure called Albert Pike, who was a general in the Confederate army and a Freemason.

 

The writing was reasonably good, apart from some of the dialogue, but this just isn't an area of interest for me. I feel the book is mis-titled, though I should have read the description more closely. The first few lines supported the impression that it would actually be about the Knights Templar from the title.

 

If someone wants to read about Civil War Confederacy and Freemasonry of the time, this should appeal. The connections to the Templars are certainly pure fiction though.

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