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Every six months or so, I like to check to see what are the most popular reviews on this site, and I’m always surprised by how many of the most-read reviews are for classics, rather than for more recent books.  Since January 1, 2015, these are the reviews that have attracted the most readers:

1.  Once again, with more than twice as many hits as any other review on the site:  Jo Nesbo’s THE REDEEMER, always a surprise since it is not my favorite Nesbo novel (THE REDBREAST is).

2.  Winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction:  Anthony Doerr’s ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE, set in Saint-Malo, France, in the waning days of World War II.

3.  Zachary Mason’s THE LOST BOOKS OF THE ODYSSEY,  with many of the hits focused on the map of the real places Odysseus visited on his journey, which is included with review.

4.  Alan Paton’s THE HERO OF CURRIE ROAD, the complete collection of Paton’s short fiction, mostly autobiographical.  This one always surprises me since this book has never been published in the US or UK, though it is readily available on Amazon/South Africa.

5.  Winner of the Costa Award for Biography in 2011,  Edmund De Waal’s  THE HARE WITH AMBER EYES,  the search by an artist for his family’s heritage after World War II.

6. Kamila Shamsie’s KARTOGRAPHY, set in Pakistan, a study of friendship, love, and roots.

7.  David Bret’s PIAF: A PASSIONATE LIFE, a biography of the Little Sparrow.

8.  Jan-Philipp Sendker’s THE ART OF HEARING HEARTBEATS, set in Burma/Myanmar, where a young woman searches for her father’s roots.

9.  Abdulrazak Gurnah’s PARADISE,  an oldie which was a finalist for both the Booker Prize and the Whitbread Prize in 1994, set in Tanzania.

10.  (Tie)  Alan Duff, ONCE WERE WARRIORS, a classic from 1990, which illustrates the plight of the Maori of New Zealand who are now living sometimes desperate lives in the city.

10.  (Tie)  Winner of the National Book Award for Fiction in 2012, Louise Erdrich’s THE ROUND HOUSE, which contrasts the current lives of Native Americans (Chippewa) with their past.

Postscript: Out of curiosity, I scrolled to see the least popular reviews, many of them old, and  one, near the bottom, struck a particular chord with me – a powerful novel written back in 2004 by Irish novelist Ronan Bennett, which received rave reviews.  Set in northern England in 1630, during the time of Charles II, a hundred years after Henry VIII officially ended Catholic rule, HAVOC IN ITS THIRD YEAR, focuses on what happens in England when a group of devoutly religious leaders form a new, secret ruling group so they may impose their own, much stricter religious beliefs on the population.   The author’s own experience as a Catholic growing up in Northern Ireland almost certainly influenced his point of view:  When he was eighteen, he was convicted of murdering a policeman during an IRA-led bank robbery, a conviction which was later overturned.

“I can feel that great things are in store for me.  But at this point, I’m sitting here with 80 marks and without a new source of income and I ask you, Where is my man for this emergency?  Times are horrible.  Nobody has any money and there is an immoral spirit in the air – just as you’re getting ready to hit on someone for some cash, they’re already hitting on you!” – Doris

Published in Germany in 1932, when author Irmgard Keun was only twenty-two, The Artificial Silk Girl, a bestselling novel of its day, is said to be for pre-Nazi Germany what Anita Loos’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1925) is for Jazz Age America.  Both novels capture the frantic spirit, the eat-drink-and-be-merry ambiance, and the materialism of young people like Doris, in The Artificial Silk Girl – and Lorelei Lee in the Loos book – who haunt the urban clubs as they try to work their way into a lifestyle much grander and more vibrant than anything their mothers could ever have hoped for.  Many attractive young women, regardless of their education and social experience, have set their sights on becoming part of the privileged urban social scene, which they hope to achieve through the attentions of successful men with whom they flirt and often seduce. The differences between these young woman and the scorned prostitutes who hang out in the neighborhoods around the clubs blur when these young women become older, more experienced, less attractive, and more desperate.

Author Irmgard Keun

In The Artificial Silk Girl, main character Doris, like the author herself, starts out in a small city (like the author’s Cologne), where she wants to be an actress, while supporting herself as a stenographer.  Like Lorelei Lee in the Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Doris eventually decides to write a commentary about her life which author Irmgard Keun presents as Doris’s point of view.  Though Keun refused, throughout her own life, to write an official autobiography, her characterizations and insightful commentary about the times, both in this novel and in Gilgi, One of Us (1931), suggest that she was intimately, if not personally, aware of the social tightrope young women like Doris walked as they tried, and often failed, to improve their lives. The authorities in Germany were not pleased, however, with her published depiction of Berlin life as Hitler and the Nazis, preparing to take power, envisioned it.  Within a year, Keun’s books were confiscated and all known copies were destroyed.  In 1936, Keun, firmly opposed to Nazism, escaped Germany for Belgium, Holland, and later New York, not returning to Germany until 1940, when false reports of her suicide made it possible for her to enter and live in Germany under a false name.  Though she continued writing after World War II, it is this novel, rediscovered and republished in 1979, for which she is best known.

Doris: "I look like Colleen Moore, if she had a perm and her nose were a little more fashionable, like pointing up."

Doris, the “artificial silk girl,” has no politics, focusing almost completely on her own ambitions – finding wealthy men who will improve her life by financing a better lifestyle for her. She cadges a desired wristwatch from one potential suitor, extols the virtues of chocolates and fine clothing to others (and is sometimes rewarded), but fastens her clothing with rusty safety pins in case someone too unattractive gets too carried away.  By the age of seventeen, she has already had a year-long affair with Hubert, her first and most lasting love, but when he ignores her birthday after she’s saved up for a new dress, and fails to produce a present, she gets angry.  “All he ever gave me was a little plastic frog that I would float down the river just for fun.”  And when he becomes patronizing and “wallows in his own morality,” she retaliates by embarrassing him in public.

Doris: "There's a man with fabulously clean-cut features, like Conrad Veidt when he was at the height of his career, wearing a diamond ring on his pinky, who's looking at me from the other end of the room."

The novel that follows from this introduction is both fun and very funny, based entirely on the persona of Doris –  totally goal oriented, unafraid to take chances, willing to do anything to get what she wants, and very clever.  Her voice – honest, bawdy, and surprisingly guileless – also shows her intelligence, while her pointed observations and insights into those around her give the author unlimited opportunities for unique descriptions: She comments that her father is “lazy as a dead body.”  One restaurant is “a beer belly all lit up,” and dancing the tango “when you’re drunk…is like going down a slide.”  There are no limits to Doris’s imagination and her self-interest, and when she seizes the opportunity to be an extra in theatrical production, she quickly drops hints about her own background to impress people as she plots her way to success.  Her feverish excitement beguiles the reader, and when her outrageous behavior forces her to escape not only the theater but the city itself, the reader cannot help but root for her eventual success.

Goldwasser, a Polish liqueur made with flakes of real gold, excites Doris: "It's sweet and makes you drunk - it's like a violin and tango in a glass."

The author divides the novel into three parts, reflecting the seasons and the symbolism associated with them.  The wild, spontaneous, free-for-all of action in Part I takes place at the end of summer. Part II begins in Late Fall in Berlin, a much larger city, and the reader expects that this will be a darker and probably more contemplative time.  The gradual change of mood here, a true testament to the talent of Keun, increases the reader’s identification with Doris and her goals.  As Doris arrives in Berlin at Friederichstrasse Station, “the politicians [both German and French] arrived on the balcony like soft black spots,” and the crowd erupted, rushing the balcony and screaming for peace as the naïve Doris asks a café patron “if Frenchmen and Jews were one and the same.”   A moving scene in which Doris takes her blind neighbor for a last walk through the city before he goes to a nursing home, highlights this section and reflects Doris’s (and the author’s) ability to describe images of 1933 Berlin in ways that could only have been done by someone who was there at the time.  As the old blind man says, “The city isn’t good and the city isn’t happy and the city is sick…but you are good and I thank you for that,” an amazing comment for any author to make publicly as the Nazis were coming to power.

In Berlin Doris comments that "The Gloria Palast is shimmering - it's a castle, a castle - but really it's a movie theater and a cafe..."

Part III, “A Lot of Winter and a Waiting Room,” introduces three men, each of whom affects Doris’s life and future, bringing about new recognitions by Doris and a realistic conclusion to the novel.  A tiny section in Part III carries the novel up to the Spring, suggesting new growth and, perhaps, new hope.  The author’s efficient and effectively presented structure allows her to describe all manner of Berlin life during this fraught period, at the same time that it allows Doris to grow and develop naturally for the reader. The book’s timeless themes regarding women and how they see themselves, combine with history in a unique way, giving life to a less publicized period of history and new insights into some of the women who lived through it.

Note: Another, very different novel about this same period is BLOOD BROTHERS by Ernst Haffner, also highly recommended, also banned by the Nazis in 1933, also rediscovered in the late 1970s, and also translated into English and republished by Other Press in the past two years.

Photos, in order: The author’s photo, taken when she was twenty-five, is from http://www.themillions.com/

Colleen Moore, to whom Doris compares herself, was an American actress who began in silent films and who popularized the bobbed haircut.  https://www.pinterest.com/

Conrad Veidt, a popular actor in Germany, left the country for England and eventually the US, in 1933, bringing his Jewish wife with him.   His career is fascinating and is summarized on Wiki.  His photo is from https://conradveidt.files.wordpress.com/

Goldwasser, a Polish vodka and herbal liqueur which features flakes of real gold, was invented in Danzig in 1598 and is still available for sale.  Doris enjoyed this because “It’s sweet and makes you drunk – it’s like a violin and tango in a glass.”  http://galeri.uludagsozluk.com/

The Gloria Palast in Berlin “is shimmering – it’s a castle, a castle – bit really it’s a movie theater and a cafe…”   http://allekinos.pytalhost.com/

Note: This novel was SHORTLISTED for Best Novel by a Newcomer in the Irish Book Awards for 2014.  It was also chosen a BOOK OF THE YEAR by the Irish Times, the Independent, and the Sunday Business Post.

‘What the hell are you goin to do with yer life,’ my da said.  ‘I’ll tell you one thing, if ye really did make a balls of your Leavin Cert because ye were too busy dossing and feelin sorry for yourself, ye better not expect us to support ye. …What’ll ye do for the summer?  Have ye started looking for a job yet?’

I scowled and said, ‘I just did me last exam yesterday, how could I have had time to find a job?’—Matthew Connelly, age 18

Set in Dublin in 2003, during the height of the Celtic Tiger economic boom, Dubliner Rob Doyle’s debut novel focuses on four young men who have just finished secondary school, none of them with any idea of what they want to do with their lives, and even less motivation.  Most have been ignoring the academic demands of their school, preferring to float rootlessly within the social atmosphere of their peers, an atmosphere in which drugs and alcohol have been the primary driving force.  Main character Matthew Connelly, a teenage Everyman who sometimes behaves like a punk, does not know whether he has passed his Leaving Certification, and he does want to think about it.   He and three friends grow for the reader within their own chapters here, and the comparisons and contrasts in their lives are vividly illustrated.  Joseph Kearney, a friend whose whole life seems governed by his consumption of drugs and alcohol, is showing dangerous signs of losing all control. Richard Tooley, “Rez,” a more sensitive and thoughtful character, thinks through his present situation with his friends and makes  what he regards as philosophically valid decisions.  The fourth teen, Gary Cocker, the least developed, often acts as a foil for the actions of the others.

Author photo by Al Higgins.

With a graduate degree in philosophy, author Rob Doyle writes a novel with simple premises and complex results as he develops his characters, showing how differently they react to their aimless lives. Since this was a period of great economic growth in Ireland, the relationships between the teens and their hard-working parents, who had hoped for success for them, are often understandably frayed. When Matt’s mother asks him what’s wrong and tells him she’s worried, Matthew wishes he could tell them that he “was miserable and could they fix everything, like I was a child still,” but his father, angry and frustrated, cannot help comparing him to his sister, finally exploding, “Do ye not realize how lucky ye are?…Back when I was eighteen, I’d have given me right arm to have what all youse have.  But ye don’t lift a finger.  Ye just can’t see it, can ye?”

Entrance to Bono's house, Killiney

Matt’s parents would have been horrified to know that very close to the time of their talk with Matt about his future, he and his friends, drunk and high on drugs, visited the coastal mansion of U2 singer Bono in Killiney, bent on mischief.  Cocker, after announcing on the speakerphone at Bono’s entrance gate that he is Elton John, screams expletive-laden insults at Bono and what he represents for them.  Matt and Rez follow suit.  When it is Kearney’s turn, however, even his friends are astonished by the unexpected intensity of his foul-mouthed diatribe.  He goes way beyond spouting foul language, expressing instead his genuine hatred and announcing that he wants Bono to die.

The Temple Bar, adjacent to Meeting House Square, draws large crowds of young people every night.

As the boys wander around Dublin, always drunk and high, they visit popular places like the Temple Bar, Meeting House Square, and the O’Connell Bridge. Like other “normal” teenagers, Matt meets a girlfriend at the Cliffs at Howth, but he also worries about a frightening encounter that Kearney has had with a junkie the previous night.  The boys take the DART to Portmarnock Beach on a lovely day, but they also throw stones and other objects at their old school one night.  Matt slowly learns about life the hard way, making mistakes, but his heart is good, and he is dramatically affected when he sees a child get hit by a car.  Throughout the story of Matt and his growth, the story of Kearney serves as a warning, showing the tenuousness of the boys’ emotional states.  A scene in Dublin’s beautiful Garden of Remembrance, followed shortly after by the grand climax at a rave at Greystones Beach, brings the action to its dramatic conclusion.

Summer has arrived when the students hit Portmarnock Beach, as Matt did with his friends.

The eternal generation gap, the unpreparedness of these teenage boys for real life, their seeming lack of values (except for the dubious value they see in each other’s company), and the widespread availability of all kinds of drugs and drink set up these boys for personal failure.  Fortunately, some of the boys sense that they must soon “own their own actions” before it is too late.  However foreign the worlds of these teenage boys may be to the reader’s own experiences, the author draws the reader into the action by presenting insightful, if disturbing scenes, related in honest, uncompromising language.   The boys’ conversations and behavior, while often bizarre, somehow inspire empathy, since most seem to have some residual sense of what is “right.”  A motif concerning the surprising suicide of a schoolmate on the last day of school inspires much soul-searching regarding life and death and meaning, though one teen goes so far as to suggest that “people love war and love watching it on the telly, and if we didn’t have wars…we’d all be bored senseless and turn on each other to get our fix of violence.”

Dublin's Garden of Remembrance, where a climactic moment changes the lives of all the characters.

Despite all the drugs and alcohol, each character maintains a kind of personal honesty here, even when out of control, making the reader both sympathetic and empathetic.  The atmosphere, beginning as it does with the boys’ rude but relatively harmless visit to Bono’s house, which is contrasted with Matt’s fraught talk with his parents at his own house, is tense but emotionally manageable, much like the talks of many other parents with their rebellious teenage sons,.   As the novel evolves, and the boys’ own issues become increasingly dramatic, however, the novel becomes darker, more frightening, and eventually violent.  Few readers who are drawn in by the action and themes of this novel will be able to forget it quickly, and parents of teens may become particularly alarmed at the unambiguous depiction of their teens’ secret lives.

Greystones Beach, where a rave is held in the dramatic conclusion to the novel.

Photos, in order: The author’s photo, by All Simmons, appears as part of an interview with the author, here:  http://irishamerica.com

The entrance to the home of U2′s Bono is the scene of a night-time visit by Matt and his friends.  http://hdimagegallery.net/

The famed Temple Bar, adjacent to Meeting House Square, one of Dublin’s most recognizable pubs, drew Matt, Cocker, Kearney, and Rez one evening during the novel. http://www.thetemplebarpub.com/

Portmarnock Beach, visited by Matt and a girlfriend, is one of the most popular summer locales in the Dublin area.  http://collegetimes.com/

A scene in The Garden of Remembrance is a turning point of the novel.  http://content.wow.com

A rave held at Greystones Beach is the  setting for the shocking conclusion of the novel.  http://gotireland.com/

ARC: Bloomsbury

Note: This novel by Edward St. Aubyn is WINNER of the 2014 Wodehouse Prize for comic fiction.

“Personally I think that competition should be encouraged in war and sport and business, but that it makes no sense in the arts.  If an artist is good, nobody else can do what he or she does and therefore all comparisons are incoherent.  Only the mediocre, pushing forward a commonplace view of life in a commonplace language can really be compared, but my wife thinks that ‘least mediocre of the mediocre’ is a discouraging title for a prize…”—Mr. Wo, Shanghai Global Partners, new owners of the Elysian group.

The fine line between satire and farce is obliterated in this novel about the annual granting of England’s most prestigious literary prize.  Author Edward St. Aubyn never hesitates to leap with both feet from satire into bold farce and back, as often as some of his characters jump with both feet into and out of each other’s beds.  At the same time, however, he also maintains a bemused and distantly objective point of view regarding the machinations of those authors competing for the Elysian Prize, as well as the judges who must decide the winner, and the literary establishment which recognizes the internal wheeling and dealing but still takes it all seriously.  Though the author never mentions the name of the real prize he is satirizing, perhaps the one for which he was once on the Short List, every reader of British literature will have an idea of which among several prizes is being satirized here.  The prize in this novel is named for Elysian, a highly controversial agricultural company which manufactures “the world’s most radical herbicides and pesticides, and a leader in the field of genetically modified crops.” Elysian thinks nothing of crossing wheat with Arctic cod to make it frost resistant or lemons with bullet ants to give them extra zest.

St. Aubyn’s parodies of various literary styles, represented by some of the candidates for the Elysian Prize mentioned here will bring smiles of recognition to many readers.  All the World’s a Stage, a book favored by Elysian judge Tobias Benedict, an actor, shows St. Aubyn’s skill in writing sophisticated parodies of Shakespearean drama here. Readers will have great fun identifying which passages from Hamlet, Macbeth, and other plays he borrows from in some of the Shakespearean passages).  Conversations between William and Ben [Jonson] and Thomas Kyd and John Webster are delightful, conjuring up all the controversy about who “really” wrote Shakespeare’s plays.  Like Shakespeare himself, author St. Aubyns also delights in mining the depths of low humor and farce for other scenes, both Shakespearean and otherwise.  The writing of one candidate for the prize, wot u starin at, by Hugh MacDonald, is so full of gutter language involving Death Boy and Wanker that I can only quote it selectively here: Wanker “was fixed ta the corner, as if some (expletive) with a nail gun had shot him through the hands and feet and crucified the sorry (expletive) to Death Boy’s floor….[He] wasna in the mood for a fight, being skag-sick, and [expletive] at the world on account of his AIDS test comin back positive.”

Huge pile of books from which the Elysian Prize nominees are supposed to be chosen by the judges who are "reading" this group.

Penny Feathers, one of the five Elysian judges, a writer of thrillers, has greatly expanded her own output after discovering an app called “Ghost.”  When she types in “refugee,” for instance, “several useful suggestions pop up: ‘clutching a pathetic bundle,’ or ‘eyes big with hunger’…Under ‘shoes’ you got ‘badly scuffed,’ ‘highly polished,’ ‘seen better days,’ and ‘bought in Paris.’   She could…scroll and click all day, the word count going up in leaps and bounds.’ ” As judge, Feathers is supporting a book entitled The Enigma Conundrum (my favorite title), which includes a “marvelous portrait of the brilliant…Alan Turing” and an “utterly convincing” portrait of Winston Churchill – “you could almost smell the cigar smoke and the brandy on his breath.”

From the huge number of novels for the year, the judges choose the longlist, from twelve to twenty books long.

Despite the wonderfully over-the-top descriptions, St. Aubyns also manages to maintain a reserve (and a distanced smirk) which gives added punch to the genuine issues he develops within the plot of this novel.  Malcolm Craig, a member of Parliament and Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, has been appointed Chairman of the prize committee.  The other judges are the aforementioned Penny Feathers, the thriller writer with the Ghost app; Tobias Benedict, the actor, who is also the godson of Sir David Hampshire, the aristocrat in charge of choosing the prize committee;  Jo Cross, a well-known columnist and media personality; and Vanessa Shaw, an “Oxbridge academic” who identifies her specific area of interest simply as “good writing.”  None of the judges feel any need to read the large number of books that eventually form the Long List – and in choosing the Short List, all have at least one favorite novel – in some cases the only candidate for the prize that they have read at all. One judge does not attend meetings, and Malcolm Craig, himself, is a tool of the wonderfully named publishing house Page and Turner.

Here three female judges and two male, like the judges in this novel, hold the six novels which comprise the shortlist. Each judge is committed to a particular book and lobbies for that book in the deliberations.

Among the nominees for the prize are the previously mentioned wot you starin at by Hugh Macdonald; All the World’s a Stage by Hermione Fade, the Shakespearean entry; The Enigma Conundrum by Tim Wentworth, supported by Penny Feathers; The Frozen Torrent by Sam Black; and, in a surprise, a book that was submitted by mistake in place of author Katherine Burns’s Consequences.  The Palace Cookbook by Lakshmi Badanpur, a cookbook with memoir by the auntie of Sonny Badanpur, has, quite by accident, become a fiction candidate for the prize. In search of a new angle, the prize committee has been impressed by the suggestions about life that these recipes represent.  The committee is deadlocked in choosing a winner.

The big banquet at which a winner is announced takes place at the Guildhall in this photo by Sarah Lee.

St. Aubyn’s Lost for Words, a book of significant literary accomplishment, gives the lie to the idea that good fiction is dead  -  its humor, intelligence, and awareness of the greater world not only intact but sparkling, a book which, in its way, celebrates the values which serious readers accept and even admire.  Of all the books I have read recently,  this one has most tickled my fancy and kept me reading happily during a period in which so much other reading has been ultra-serious and (often) very long.  A perfect book for summer written by a well-recognized author who is taking a different and much welcomed tack, Lost for Words may not be on any Short Lists, but it is high on my own Favorites List.

Photos, in order: The author’s photo appears on http://www.abc.net.au/

The big stack of books for the whole year, from which the Elysian Prize nominees are taken, is shown here:  http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/

The twelve-book longlist may be found here:  http://www.goodhousekeeping.co.uk/

The authors and their choices for the shortlist, which each will support individually, are depicted on http://www.theguardian.com/

The celebration banquet at the Guildhall  appears on http://www.theguardian.com Photo by Sarah Lee.

ARC:  Picador

“Guillaume went up to get his ["Black Insignia"] books from Helene’s room and came back all out of breath…Seeing Guillaume with his enormous sports bag, Daniel [the author of the books] started laughing, are they all in there, yes, all twenty-three [volumes], they’re all battered, I’ve read them so many times I know them by heart.  Daniel opened the bag and took out a few books, how wonderful, the broken spines, the stains and scars, it’s what every writer dreams of.”

In this short but beautifully compressed novel about writing, identity, memory, and the Holocaust, French author Deborah Levy-Bertherat tells the story of Helene Roche and her great-uncle Daniel Roche, previously known as Daniel Ascher, and also known as H. R. Sanders, author of the Black Insignia series of young adult adventure novels.  Divided into three parts which take place between September 1999, and July 2000, the novel focuses on Helene’s efforts to come to terms with her relationship with this much older family member, even as she herself is writing her thesis for a degree at the Institute of Art and Archaeology at the University of Paris.  Helene has recently moved into a nearby garret apartment which her great-uncle has offered in a building he owns nearby while he is off on one of his many travels.  Not especially close to her uncle, she lives with her boyfriend Guillaume, a fellow student who is a huge fan of Daniel’s Black Insignia series adventure novels which he read as a boy.

Gradually, Daniel’s story unfolds, as Helene learns that Daniel, a Jewish child living at the time of World War II,  was adopted by her family when his own family disappeared.  She knows that he has some family members in the US, but she is not involved or interested enough in his life to want to pursue this aspect of his life.  Though this is actually part of her own family’s history, she does not regard it as any of her business.  Her closest connection to Daniel has been that, historically, when he has returned from his many trips, he has brought her a gemstone from one of the countries that he has visited.  Guillaume, however, is completely committed to knowing and befriending Daniel on the basis of his novels, all of which he wants to have autographed by the author.

The Luxembourg Gardens in Paris, a continuing motif throughout this novel, is where Helene took her young neighbor Jonas for after school visits.

Delightful drawings by Andreas Gurewich accompany the novel, which develops the story of the past as Helene visits the old neighborhood in which Daniel Ascher grew up.   Helene knows that Daniel’s family consisted of photographers, and she is curious to meet any of the older residents of the neighborhood who might have known people associated with the old Ascher Studio, now destroyed.   Postcards from faraway places like Patagonia, sent by Daniel to Helene and others, make Helene feel somewhat more curious about her great-uncle Daniel’s experiences.  Though she herself has never managed to read more than a few pages of any of his books, she learns from Guillaume that the adventures of Peter Ashley-Mill, the hero of the Black Insignia books, provide hints about real life adventures that Daniel Ascher may have experienced and survived in Machu Pichu, the jungles of Borneo, and the ruins of Pompeii, among other places.

The Institute of Art and Archeology, at the University of Paris, where Helene was studying for an advanced degree: Photo by Tony Page/Travelsignposts.com

Gradually, Daniel’s complex feelings about his adoption, his adoptive family, and the survivors of his birth family in the United States, are revealed, and Helene’s feeling that he seems to have changed since his last trip make their relationship even more complex.  Old photographs and their history, a modern day hurricane and its aftereffects, and a trip to New York all animate the changes taking place in the relationship between Daniel and Helene.  Suggestions arise regarding secret relationships among family members, which threaten to affect future relationships.  Within six months, questions arise regarding the veracity of Daniel’s own statements about his life and his feelings about his writing life.

A valuable fire agate, similar to what Daniel gave Helene after his trip to Patagonia.

The novel’s action is not complex, though it deals with three generations of people, some of them from other countries, and many of whom have good reason to hide the past. The novel sometimes jumps around out of chronological context, though the author is careful to keep her audience in mind as she tells the story. At about the halfway mark, I found myself thinking that this might be a good book for use in teaching young high school students about the various literary tools and techniques, well developed here, which are  available to writers who might want to provide a new approach to a memoir, a story, or a major subject like the Holocaust (though that is not its primary focus).  As Helene learns more about Daniel and about herself, she matures and comes to some conclusions of her own, and as the novel ends, the reader cannot help but hope that the family will be able to deal with the revelations which are emerging.

Helene is doing a thesis on the Mosaic at Germigny-des-Pres, at the top of the semicircular vault in this early Romanesque church. Note the two horizontal angels in the center, mentioned in the novel.

Author Levy-Bertherat has a light touch for much of the novel, despite the seriousness of the themes and discoveries about the past, and she succeeds in stimulating empathy for her damaged characters, especially Daniel and Helene, his much younger family member.  Ultimately she shows that the true writer and committed chronicler of the past, wrapped in the atmosphere of another time, has no alternative but to follow his/her muse into the scenes and stories which have animated his/her own life, and as Levy-Bertherat shows here, relive and perhaps revise his/her own history in the process.  A novel which is simple in its plot and complex in execution, The Travels of Daniel Ascher raises awareness in the reader about the effects of the past on the present – and our inability to escape the past, even should we wish to do so.

Photos, in order: The author’s photo appears on http://cultures-j.com/

The Luxembourg Gardens, where Helene took little Jonas after school, are shown on http://ciaobambino.com/

The Institute of Art and Archaeology at the University of Paris is where Helene was studying for her advanced degree.  Photo by Tony Page on http://www.travelsignposts.com

The valuable fire agate, which Daniel brought home to Helene after his trip to Patagonia is shown on https://es.pinterest.com/explore/

The mosaic of angels at Germigny-des-Pres, at the top of the semicircular vault of this Romanesque church, is the subject of a thesis by Helene and appears on http://orfeee45.over-blog.com/

ARC:  Other Press

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