Book Review ~ Zenith Hotel by Oscar Coop-Phane

I didn’t really know what to expect going in to Zenith Hotel. I had seen a lot of people talking about it on Twitter, and I was keen to read it, but I wasn’t really sure what to expect from a book about a prostitute in Paris.

Nanou is the prostitute in question, and Zenith Hotel  is, quite simply, the story of a day in her life. She lives in a grubby hotel, and wakes up each day with nasty taste in her mouth, but she has no desire to change her life. This isn’t a book about redemption, or a fairytale about a sex worker changing her life. It is is simply the story of Nanou’s day.

Interspersed with Nanou’s writing are the stories of her clients. Each client has their own story, and they are connected only by the fact that they pay the same woman for sex. That, and they are all lonely and isolated. Coop-Phane shows that there is a commonality in loneliness; people feel so alone, and don’t realise that in their loneliness, they are connected to others. Each man is given merely a chapter to tell his story, and yet each character feels as fully fleshed out and developed as if they were given an entire book.

The most interesting thing to me was the way Paris was portrayed. This is not the glamorous city that you know from films and photos, and nor is it the bohemian paradise you may think you know. It’s a seedy, dirty and grubby place that is so at odds with the usual portrayal of the city.

Oscar Coop-Phane was just twenty when he wrote Zenith Hotel, and the language is just gorgeous. My favourite passage is this one, on bereavement:

“The main thing was to live with it, like a parasite that you feed with your own blood. It sucks at you, but it’s better to let it drink a few drops of blood than to chase it away and have it harrow you to the bone in retaliation…You won’t get over it, all your life there’ll be this gaping wound deep in your heart. But don’t worry. It won’t stop beating.”

Simply stunning prose, and it felt as though he was speaking directly to me. That’s pretty high praise as far as I’m concerned.

Zenith Hotel  is a very short book, and definitely one that can be read in one sitting. At just shy of 100 pages, it manages to pack an awful lot into a very short book.

* I was provided with a copy of this book for review purposes by Arcadia Books

Book Review ~ The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley

I first read The Go-Between when I was studying for my English Literature A-Level (a massive fourteen or so years ago). I remember enjoying it, which to be perfectly honest is not always the case when I study a book. I often find, as I’m sure many others do, that studying a book at school or university can take an awful lot of enjoyment out of it, but this wasn’t true of The Go-Between. So when my friend Jen mentioned that she was planning on reading it again, I thought I’d follow suit, and I dug out my old, battered copy, and got reading.

The Go-Between tells the story of Leo, a young boy who, in the first summer of the 20th Century, is invited to stay with a school friend at his home, the grand Brandham Hall, in Norfolk. The story actually begins with the adult Leo finding an old diary that he kept during that time, and reminiscing on his time with the Maudsley family, and thinking about the events of the summer changed his life forever.

Developing a crush on his friend’s grown up sister, Marian, Leo finds himself engaged as a go-between, a postman between Marian and Ted, a local farmer. At first Leo doesn’t understand the nature of the letters passing between the two of them, though the reader is quickly clued in as to what is going on. Despite being promised to the local Viscount, the man from whom the Maudsleys are actually renting Brandham Hall, Marian is engaging in a passionate affair with Ted.

The most famous quote of the book is the opening line: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” This is said from the perspective of the older Leo, a man who is looking back, and this sets the tone for the rest of the novel. Although it is the younger Leo’s story, we are regularly reminded that the story is from the memories of the older man, and it provides us with a perspective on a series of events that a twelve-year-old couldn’t have been expected to understand at the time.

Hartley uses the figures of the zodiac and various gods throughout the whole novel, with Leo likening Marian to Virgo (ironically, as it turns out), Ted to the water carrier, and himself to Mercury, the messenger of the gods. Viscount Trimingham, with the disfigured face he obtained during the Boer War (happening in the background of the novel), is compared to Janus, with his two faces.

As it has been so long since I first read this book, I can’t remember all of my feelings on the book. I can’t remember if I felt as sad for Leo then as I did this time around. The story of the summer of 1900 is bookended by the older Leo, now in his fifties, reminiscing about that summer, and at the end of the book, he actually returns to the village to try to put some of his demons to rest. The whole thing left me feeling sad for this character whose life is essentially wasted because of the actions of adults who manipulated and used a child for their own means. Hartley himself was said to have been surprised when people sympathised with the relationship between Marian and Ted, as he himself had intended for them to be seen to be in the wrong. From a 21st Century perspective, it’s even easier to empathise with Marian; a young woman who is essentially being sold to the local landowner, when she is clearly in love with Ted. But her actions (and Ted’s too, he is not blameless in the slightest) regarding Leo, and her attitude at the end of the novel, mean that for me, she is not a particularly sympathetic character.

I would have to say that I enjoyed The Go-Between even more this time round. Reading it as a seventeen-year-old was fine, and I’m glad I did, but I think as an adult, I was able to enjoy it on another level. I feel as though it’s going to be one of those books that I am going to read every couple of years.

The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley
First Published: 1953
ISBN: 978-0141187785

Book Review ~ The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight by Jennifer E. Smith

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I have never been particularly shy about loving Young Adult books. Of course, I prefer the very good ones, but even the mediocre ones tend to be short enough that it doesn’t really matter that they aren’t very good.

I downloaded The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight from Netgalley. It’s not a new book, but they were offering a limited number of downloads, so I thought I’d give it a go. The first thing that struck me was what a striking resemblance it bore to a particular event in my life.

Seventeen-year-old Hadley is flying to England to attend her dad’s wedding. Missing the flight, she waits at the airport and meets Oliver, a handsome British guy who just happens to be on the same flight as her.

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Sitting in an airport, worrying about missing a wedding struck a particular chord with me, because this is the situation I found myself in a few years ago. OK, so my travel woes were caused by a snowstorm, rather than a missed flight, and I waited a lot longer than Hadley for my flight, but I felt her pain! We were even both travelling (or trying to travel) from Connecticut to London, and both had the same fears over having terrible hair for the wedding (her fears weren’t realised, while mine very much were).

Sadly I didn’t fall in love with a handsome stranger either. Oliver is the perfect hero for a Young Adult novel; he’s tall, handsome, mysterious, and slightly tortured. Hadley has her own problems, but, of course, she goes on both a literal and metaphorical journey, and manages to reconcile herself yo her father’s new life in London.

This is a very short novel; and I really felt as though I wanted a little bit more time devoted to all the characters. I didn’t feel as though I really got to know anyone other than Hadley, and I didn’t believe in the relationship between her and Oliver, because there wasn’t enough time devoted to it.

The Statistical Probability of Falling in Love was fine as a quick read, but I don’t think I would have enjoyed half as much if I hadn’t identified with the travel crisis like I did.

32 Before 32 ~ It’s Only a Movie by Mark Kermode

Since the start of the year, I’ve mentioned Mark Kermode a lot on this here blog. I know I’m a little late to the party in terms of becoming a fan of both him, and his and Simon Mayo’s 5 Live film show, but frankly, I’m enamoured. I really think he’s my favourite film critic; our opinions seem to line up fairly frequently, and though I don’t always agree with him, I do enjoy hearing what he thinks about films.

When I realised that he had written a number of books, I knew that I had to read them. I already finished his book on The Shawshank Redemption last month, and last weekend I read It’s Only a Movie. I didn’t really know what to expect; I knew it wasn’t an autobiography as such, more an account of his life as a movie critic, and how he got to be where he is today.

Mark Kermode is the sort of person who has a thousand anecdotes that he likes to tell on multiple occasions, so because I am going back through the Wittertainment archive and listening to old podcasts, I have heard some of his stories before. The time when he was with Werner Herzog when the German director was shot, for example, is a fantastic story that I’ve heard mentioned at least twice. But there is plenty in there that I didn’t know about; Helen Mirren taking him to task at the Baftas made me laugh out loud, and his first foray in radio broadcasting was also worth a giggle.

My favourite chapter was the one where he described his working relationship with Simon Mayo, simply because I’m such a big fan of their radio show. It was really sweet to hear Kermode worrying that their partnership would be coming to an end if the show was to move to Manchester, and his relief when he realised that Simon Mayo’s future plans might just include him was just lovely.

I’ve given this book a four-star rating on Goodreads, because I really did enjoy it so much (even if I did think the chapter on his adventures in Russia and Belarus was slightly on the long side). But I honestly don’t know if anyone who isn’t a huge Kermode fan would enjoy it as much as I did. There’s not much here on his life outside of his love for cinema, which some people might have preferred. But I’m happy to read about how he came to love films, and how much he clearly loves Simon Mayo. It makes me happy to think that, for all the bickering, they love each other really.

Four down, six to go on number two of 32 Before 32 – read ten non-fiction books.