In the swamps, Burke takes it up a notch

Bob Moyer has been busy, moving to a new home and doing all the other things Bob Moyer does. Including reading. Now, at last, he’s found time again to write some book reviews and share his literary finds with us. Thank goodness.

Reviewed by Robert P.  Moyer

A PRIVATE CATHEDRAL: A Dave Robicheaux Novel. By James Lee Burke. Simon and Schuster. $28.

The supernatural has always loomed large in the swamps of James Lee Burke’s Iberia Parish. Deputy Sheriff Dave Robicheaux has watched Confederate soldiers gesture at him to join them, he’s seen specters of his Vietnam journey appear before him, he has seen evil appear in a number of forms — life doesn’t pass through the swamps, it sinks in and is released from time to time.

In A PRIVATE CATHEDRAL, author Burke has taken the supernatural up a notch to science fiction. When Dave discovers that a mafia don has given his daughter to a local populist demagogue, he can’t leave it alone. He can’t leave the mafioso’s longtime mistress alone, either. The don doesn’t suffer Dave’s attention lightly. He brings in a green-scaled, hooded-eyed character who appears in a mist on a ship manned by unreleased souls, has hallucinatory powers — and moonlights as a hit man. He is the most formidable foe that Dave and his buddy Cletis, known as “the Bobbsey twins” when they were on the New Orleans police force, have ever faced.

Set in the past, just as Helen Soileau has been appointed sheriff, the book abounds with the violence that was de rigueur both at that time and in earlier books of this venerable series. Also extant is the elegant prose Burke produces, as evil manifests itself in the landscape. Dave has gone through “…the long night of the soul,” and feels as though he is “…the only occupant in a cathedral in which you can hear your heartbeat echoing off the walls.”  Time and again, Dave battles this sense of “…being in a black box for the duration, Jason.” He rants eloquently, and frequently, as he battles his own demons of alcoholism and violence.

In fact, those personal demons are more interesting than the green one Burke has conjured up to further complicate the lives of Dave and Cletis. The strengths of a Robicheaux novel are still here. The pleasure in the book, however, depends upon your threshold for science fiction mixed in with this familiar setting. It’s a literary gumbo not for all tastes.

 

Posted in Popular fiction, Science Fiction/Fantasy, Southern Fiction, Thriller/Suspense | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

All aboard for Whistle Stop!

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

THE WONDER BOY OF WHISTLE STOP. By Fannie Flagg. Random House Audio. Read by the author. 8 hours; 7 compact discs. $40. Also available in hardback from Random House.

You are in for a treat. Need an antidote to COVID, the election and all the other things 2020 has thrown at us? Here it is. Read this book, or, better yet, let Fannie Flagg read her own words to you.

Don’t worry if you somehow haven’t read Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café. You can still love this latest Whistle Stop book. In her own sometimes rambling, conversational way, Flagg fills in the relevant background and history – and gives us some insights we didn’t get the first time. In any event, this delightful story can stand on its own. The characters and their joys and heartbreaks come wonderfully to life.

I read the first book some years ago and remembered its broad outlines. The more I listened to the new one, the more I wanted to revisit some of the details of the first. A few minutes online accomplished that.

If you never read Fried Green Tomatoes, reading Wonder Boy will surely make you want to do so, or at least watch the movie. Come to think of it, I might watch the movie again. Whistle Stop could be addictive.

But for now, just enjoy Wonder Boy. As you’d expect, this is a story liberally laced with humor and warm insights into the foibles of human nature. It’s also a classic Southern novel, told through sorts of the colorful anecdotes and memories that might be shared on a front porch on a warm, honeysuckle-scented summer night.

The wonder boy of the title is Bud Threadgoode, the one-armed boy (you’ll find out why) who grew up in the 1930s in the little Alabama railroad town called Whistle Stop. He was raised by his mother, Ruth, and his Aunt Idgie. Though they could hardly have been more different on the surface – Ruth was a church-going, convention-obeying proper lady, while Idgie, always a tomboy, was given to drinking, gambling and other sins – the two had a close relationship that went beyond the café they operated together.

Through Flagg’s delightful stories, we learn how Bud grew up, married and had a daughter and a career that took him away from Whistle Stop. Now he’s an elderly widower, living in a posh retirement home in Atlanta, near his only child, Ruthie, herself a widow. Ruthie married into old Atlanta money, but unfortunately, Martha Lee Caldwell, a domineering mother-in-law who lives in the mansion next door, was part of the deal. In Flagg’s skilled hands, Martha Lee becomes a rich source of humor.

After many enjoyable diversions and excursions back and forth over nearly a century, Flagg gets to the main action of the new novel. All sorts of developments are triggered when Bud, without telling anyone, runs away from the home on a quest to see what’s become of his beloved Whistle Stop. He eventually discovers that Whistle Stop essentially is no more; the railroad business changed, people moved away, and the town became a ghost town. What buildings are left – even the beloved old café – are in shambles.

But don’t worry. Things are about to get really interesting, in a good way.

Been needing a respite, a treat, a real escape? Here it is.

 

 

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Law, order, love and money, Stone Barrington style

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

SHAKEUP. By Stuart Woods. Penguin Audio. Read by Tony Roberts. 7 hours; 6 CDs. $35. Also available in print from G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

OK, here’s the book to take you from the craziness we are in to a fantasy world in which the United States has just inaugurated its second – in a row – female president, who also happens to be intelligent, principled, competent and in a relationship (of sorts) with our hero.

It’s a world where very wealthy and powerful men and women presumably grow older but never show signs of age, where they can consume all the finest food and drink they want with no ill effects, where men and women come together in a highly civilized way to enjoy the pleasures of each other’s flesh with friendliness and some affection, but no messy emotional entanglements… You get the idea.

This is book No. 55 in Stuart Woods’ series about Stone Barrington, the quintessential debonair widower enjoying the good life in this alternate world. I’ve read (listened to – these books are a good diversion when driving alone) quite a few of them over the years, but I have not gone back to the beginning to learn how a former New York City police detective became a fabulously wealthy lawyer, although I gather some of the riches came from his late wife. However it happened, Stone now leads a charmed life: He’s a senior member of a prestigious law firm but rarely seems to work and almost never goes in to the office. He owns mansions in several states and abroad. He has a luxurious yacht and a private jet with crews ready to go at a moment’s notice. And women – especially women in high places – find him completely irresistible from the moment they meet him. In fact, resisting isn’t considered; they usually make the first moves.

Shakeup is fantastic, indeed, and at times downright comic, as Stone works to keep his love life going now that Holly Barker, with whom he’s long had his style of open relationship, is the nation’s second woman president. They have to do something about all those secret service agents, not to mention the press. At one point, Stone has a burka made to order so Holly can travel incognito from her hotel room to his posh Manhattan home. Their time together will be more limited now, so he tries to make himself available if she comes to town, even if it means turning that up-and-coming young movie star or the new female head of the FBI or some other lovely and eager woman out of his boudoir. And of course, the women never mind and never exhibit jealousy.

But wait! I’m forgetting the crime/detective part of the story. (Sometimes, Stone Barrington novels seem to be primarily about his travel, mansions and sexual liaisons, but the better books include sufficient mystery and intrigue.) When Stone returns to his D.C. hotel suite after accompanying Holly to her inauguration, he stumbles over the recently deceased body of Patricia Clark, the soon-to-be-divorced wife of Holly’s nominee for secretary of Commerce, Dan Clark.

Thus starts an ever-widening web of dastardly deeds that threaten law and order in New York as well as the nation’s capital. Stone, of course, and his pal Dino Bachetti, the New York police commissioner, help solve the related murders and other crimes. The quest involves a quick trip to London, and puts even Stone in peril.

This is about as escapist as it gets. Ably read by Tony Roberts, a veteran of Stone Barrington sagas, Shakeup may have you rolling your eyes or shaking your head at times, but it will also, happily, take you right out of today’s reality.

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Hang on for the ride of your life

Looking for quality, entertaining escape reading? Bob Moyer has a new novel for you. Be prepared to hold on!

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

BLACKTOP WASTELAND. By S. A. Cosby. Flatiron. 304 pages. $26.99

There’s nary a ping or misfire as this high-octane heist novel roars through the BLACKTOP WASTELAND of rural eastern Virginia. Every successful heist needs a great driver behind the wheel, and Beauregard is the best east of the Mississippi. Every successful heist novel needs a steady hand at the helm, and  S.A. Cosby, in his first novel for a major publisher, knows his rpms from his nitro-boost.

Beauregard, or Bug as he is known, is a husband, father of three, lives in a double-wide and owns a garage. He used to be in the game, but has tried to go straight. Unfortunately, his mom is about to be kicked out of her retirement home, his daughter needs money for college, and all his bills are overdue because a new garage in town has taken his business. So when shaky, shady Ronnie shows up with a gig, Bug doesn’t turn him down. And it’s not just the money — driving is in his blood.

Author Cosby drops dollops of backstory about how Bug came to be the driver he is, with a Plymouth Duster that no one can beat off the line. It’s a delightful part of the book, and to tell any of the details would detract from the reader’s experience. Suffice it to say, when Bug says yes, the fun ensues. Fueled by a blend of a botched robbery, a crime boss, betrayal, car chases and even a truck chase, the book takes a twisty ride through almost nearly unique territory, executing plot turns both improbable and seemingly impossible — but delivering us still pumped up from the ride at the end.

Blacktop Wasteland is not just a good book — it’s a gas.

 

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Who we are, who we become

Bob Moyer is right on with his review of this well-written novel. Coincidentally (sorry, Bob, I couldn’t resist), I read it recently for the book club I participate in here in Currituck, North Carolina. The Vanishing Half inspired some lively discussions.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

THE VANISHING HALF. By Brit Bennett. Riverhead Books. 352 pages. $27.

Coincidence.

From the pen of a great, even a good writer, it can open new vistas, extend the narrative, bring storylines together, and wreak magic on the reader. If not handled skillfully, however, it can push the reader right off the page. People have asked me frequently why I rarely publish a negative review. I stop reading if it doesn’t appeal to me, or, in my most recent drop, I can’t believe the premise. In a book listed for the Man Booker prize, the author created such an outrageous coincidence central to the narrative that I couldn’t possibly continue.

Britt Bennett depends upon coincidence in her accomplished book, The Vanishing Half. It is the weakest link in an otherwise sterling novel about light-skinned black twins from Mallard, Louisiana. The social hierarchy of this small, black community depends upon the skin tone. Light-skinned as they are, Desiree and Stella still escape from town one night. Soon after, Stella escapes again — across the line from black to white, as we later learn.

Desiree does not. She marries an African-American man, and has a child “as black as tar.”  He turns abusive, and she takes her daughter back to Mallard. There, the child grows up subjected to the cruel caste system inside the black community. She finally escapes to college in Los Angeles.

That’s where the coincidence that stretches credulity comes in. By this time, however, Bennett has reeled us in with some skillful writing. She provides us a tangible connection between the twins, a palpable bond between mothers and daughters, a stark capture of the caste system, and a growing interest in what happened to The Vanishing Half, Stella. Bennett primes us with comments about statistics, ironically Stella’s strength. We accept the coincidence, as the two storylines come together when the “black as tar” daughter meets Stella’s blonde-haired, blue-eyed daughter.

Bennett makes painfully clear that Stella escaped only to a prison of her lies. She has committed so completely to her crossover that she cannot come forth to her daughter. With an eye for detail and an ear for dialogue, Bennett details the nuances of “passing,” and the price Stella and her daughter pay for it.

The playing out of the story is not a happy one for Stella or her daughter. Desiree and her daughter actually escape Mallard into a modicum of normalcy. No magic occurs to resolve the effects of racism here, however. The only magic in this book is the prestidigitation of Bennett’s prose.

 

 

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A different perspective

Paul O’Connor, a veteran journalist, offers a review of a book that he says isn’t easy to read – but worth the effort.

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor

CASTE: THE ORIGIN OF OUR DISCONTENTS. By Isabel Wilkerson. Random House. 388 pages. $32, hardcover.

Many weekday mornings, a friend calls to discuss the news and express his astonishment at the conservative political positions of the people he grew up with in Western North Carolina.

“Don’t they understand that they are voting against their own best interests?” he often asks.

Isabel Wilkerson, in Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, would disagree with his analysis. His rural white friends understand what they are doing, she would say. They vote for the one interest they find more important than good health care, a healthy environment and a fair tax system: the status that comes with being white in America.

“The precarity of their lives and the changing demographics of the country induced (during the Obama years) a greater need to maintain whatever advantages that they (non-affluent whites) had come to expect and to shore up the one immutable characteristic that has held the most weight in the American caste system,” she wrote.

That may sound like a fairly common assessment of white working-class voters – that they are duped into voting against their own best interests by race-baiting candidates. But it is different.

Wilkerson makes a clear distinction between two -isms that we often conflate: racism and casteism. The first entails malevolence and sometimes violence. Casteism often appears benign, sometimes committed by people who harbor no ill will toward people of color. It is the effort by people in one caste to maintain their advantage over those in the lower castes.

Before we reach the above quote on page 325, Wilkerson has made her case that America supports a caste system that is among the world’s most severe and entrenched, and that many white Americans, foreseeing the year 2042, when demographers predict that whites will no longer constitute a majority of the population, fear that they will lose control of their country and the privileges that being atop the caste system brings.

Caste and class differ, she writes. Many are the professional athletes and high-tech gurus who were born into working- or lower-class families who, by nature of their accomplishments, now occupy the highest of our financial classes. But, when it comes to caste, there is no escaping. Wilkerson, with all of her accomplishments, may live in a beautiful home in an exclusive neighborhood, but she still suffers the humiliations of casteism from white plumbers and airline stewards.

Caste has been inescapable, to date, in America; class has not.

Wilkerson, who won a Pulitzer Prize as a reporter for The New York Times and then wrote an astounding history of the African-American diaspora, The Warmth of Other Suns, stands as one of our most compelling chroniclers of contemporary America. As she showed in her previous book, she has mastered the art of telling the stories of ordinary people.

In Caste, she draws from the stories of people she has interviewed, and adds both her own stories and others from historical sources. In every case, the stories provide the examples for the characteristics of casteism that she will soon explain. For example, in telling her airline experience, she explains the inescapability of the caste system.

Caste also relies on sociological, anthropological and historical sources to explain castes.

Many Americans, including myself, probably never considered the American racial structure as a caste akin to that in India, nor of the Aryan social structure of Nazi Germany, but Wilkerson makes very strong historical arguments about their similarities. In one chapter, she relates the history of the Nazi racial purity laws.

To formulate a racial purity policy, the Nazis looked to other nations. They found what they wanted in the American South, focusing on how states made racial segregation, and the permanent African-American subordination, part of the legal structure. In the end, these Nazi policymakers left their conference in awe of how America could portray itself worldwide as the land of the free and equal opportunity when it legally relegated a major portion of its population to second-class citizenship. The Nazis also concluded that the American laws were too harsh for German consumption and diluted them, at least in the initial stages.

Wilkerson, in conclusion, agrees with my friend that his old pals are not acting in their own best interests by clinging to the caste system. It harms us all, pigeonholing all of us based on the color of our skin and other meaningless attributes, thus asking too little of some and too much of others.

This is not a pleasant book to read. To the contrary, it’s disheartening. But it is also transformative. It has the potential to provide us with a whole new way of seeing our social structure, a perspective we really need.

Posted in American History, Contemporary Nonfiction, Politics, Sociology | Tagged , | Leave a comment

How could he?

Bob Moyer reviews a book that’s both mystery and thriller, as are many of the ones he reads, but this is a nonfiction book of history.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

MENGELE: Unmasking the Angel of Death. By David G. Marwell. Norton. 432 pages. $30.

He stood on the ramp, as scores of Jews flooded out of the boxcars at the end of the track in Auschwitz Birkenau. With a gesture of his hand he sent them to work — on the right — or to the gas chamber—on the left. He was not the only one who made “selections.”  Every doctor after 1943 was assigned to the duty. Yet he was the most feared, the most remembered by survivors.

He was the Angel of Death.

He was Josef Mengele.

He would appear at other sites around the camp and make impromptu selections. He once had a broomstick held up, and children walked up to it. If they went under, they were killed; if they didn’t, they lived. He also made selections that led to horrific experiments — people with blue eyes, with cleft palates, twins. His legend increased as he eluded capture after the war.

Yet he did not escape the memories of many, including the international organization of twin survivors. They raised such a hue and cry that in 1985 an unparalleled cooperation among Germany, Israel and the United States came about to find him, or what happened to him. David Marwell was appointed director of the American group under the Office of Special Investigations. This well-written book, which reads like a mystery, is his record of that search. Using both forensic and historical methods, the commission approached a number of burning questions: What exactly did he do, why did he do it, and what happened to him after the war? How could one man have inflicted so much horror in such a short time, since he arrived in 1943, and Auschwitz was abandoned in 1945? How could one man think up such evil torture?

Nothing in Mengele’s well-to-do upbringing as the child of a factory owner suggested his future activities. His education was standard for an ambitious, educated young man; he became a doctor, and acquired two other degrees. He became expert in his field, and was encouraged as well as promoted by his mentors, who were the leading experts in his chosen field—phenogenetics, the study of the influence of the environment on genetic properties, and how the genetic properties can be inferred from the phenotypes, or traits. That very description explains his value to the Nazi regime — the word phenogenetics even comes from the German. A central premise of the regime was the superiority of the German volk, and the necessity to separate the inferior races from them. Before the war started, Mengele frequently was called upon to make judgments about whether an individual was of Jewish ethnicity (the length of the jawbone came into play). It is therefore logical that after a stint on the eastern front, for which he was decorated, he found himself in an ideal situation, where he could experiment on a plethora of subjects within the realm of his scientific discipline.

How did he justify the cruelty of his actions?  Once again, he simply fell into the dominant premise of the regime. When one of the newly arrived doctors requested to be removed from selection duty, Mengele convinced him to return, pointing out that these were not people, they were an affliction on the volk. In other words, they were already dead. Doctors under the regime, particularly in the elite SS they were members of, were no longer to care for the individual — they were to care for the health of the race. The author illuminates the path Mengele took to the platform at Auschwitz with astonishing and agonizing detail. His argument emerges clearly. Mengele was not an evil aberration who created tortures for the sake of torture — he was the product of an evil system into which he fed the results and products of his experiments. Everything he did was in the name of science.

He escaped after the war. Once the war ends, the book becomes a thriller tracing his exit to South America; a cat-and-mouse game once he settles into a series of refuges in plain sight; and a detective story that demands a lot of shoe leather as they search for a man reported to have died in 1985. The political intrigue is thick in the finale of the book, as the tension among the three countries involved suggests. Yet even after all the incontrovertible evidence that piles up, even given the assuredness of Marwell himself, the book leaves an iota of doubt—was it Mengele in that grave?  The only thing we can be certain of is that he eluded capture, and justice for all his victims. Marwell does indeed unmask the Angel of Death, who would be shocked to the core that every tenet he held has been proved false — whatever race we are, we are 93 percent like everyone else. We are not different.

(Don’t be put off by the book’s length. 83 pages are Notes and Index.)

 

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A story for our times

I’ve enjoyed many of Chris Bohjalian’s books, some more than others. This one sounds especially — even oddly — timely, and pretty scary. I’m not sure I want to read it, but I’ll pay attention to what Bob Moyer has to say.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

RED LOTUS. By Chris Bohjalian. Doubleday. 367 pages. $27.95

You might not want to read this nail biter of a novel

You might be weary of hearing about disease spread from animals to humans, creating a pandemic.

You might be revolted by the habits and hordes of rats that live under and around us, devouring everything, including each other.

You might get queasy at being privy to the private thoughts of a cutter, a person who hurts themselves. The doctor at the heart of this novel takes to those returning thoughts when an apparent accident kills her boyfriend while they are on a trip to Vietnam.

You might, however, relish a rollercoaster of revelations, well-researched details and well developed characters that cascade out of this book. When the emergency room doctor returns to New York, she learns what she suspected — that accident was no accident.  Her boyfriend was lying to her, and she sets off to find out how much and why. Each step she takes leads her deeper into danger, and adds a bit of dread to the reader’s stomach. The author is expert at developing narrative tension, switching between points of view, including an italicized commentator who is not revealed to the very end. The twists and turns of Chris Bohjalian’s prose and plot make for a taut, scary read.

You might enjoy it.

 

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Unraveling the girl she was

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

A GIRL’S STORY. By Annie Ernaux. Seven Stories Press. 160 pages. $18.95

Annie Ernaux

Shame and humiliation. She spent two nights with a man, then fixated on him, in 1958, earning the name “whore around the edges” from her colleagues. She carried that shame with her for 58 years, until she decided to write a book about how that girl’s life was “… endowed by shame’s vast memory.”

The result is this marvelous autofiction, in which an accomplished, prize-winning novelist considers an 18-year old petit bourgeois provincial girl. She does not fictionalize the girl, but deconstructs “…the girl I was.” She approaches the girl as “…a stranger who imparts her memory” to her. When she has merged with the girl, she steps into the “terrain” of her past —“socially, familial and sexual.”  Once there, she “…writes to unearth something that emerges from the creases when a story is unfolded.”

A flood of “somethings” emerges — poems, movies, pieces of clothing, looks on peoples’ faces, denial. She covers things rarely mentioned in literature, like the “muddle” that occurs when one tries to find “…a way to earn a living,” as she stumbles into and out of a teaching career. With an immediacy to her prose, captured aptly by the translation here, she writes  “endangered, as when one is writing about the living.” Her immersion into that girl’s life takes her to a park bench in England, totally unexpected, where she recognizes the moment “… I started to make a literary being of myself.”

Few writers can match Annie Ernaux’s concision, as she strives to “…make one feel the immense breadth and depth of a summer of youth in the two hours it takes to read one hundred pages.” And her stark images stand out in memory; nowhere else will you find Kant and the phrase “sperm in the mouth” in the same paragraph (if you do, let me know).

Her remarkable journey to realization and resolution comes to us as if A Girl’s Story were told by “… people we hear talking about her through a door.”  It is both revealing, and riveting.

 

 

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Has crime fighting ever been so enchanting?

What could be better than to be transported to the Perigord in France at a time not so long ago when no one had heard of COVID-19 and spend a little time with Bruno, chief of police and chef extraordinaire as he solves crimes, prepares delicacies and lives the good life? Bob Moyer suggests that you let Martin Walker take you there.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

THE SHOOTING AT CHATEAU ROCK: A Bruno, Chief of Police Novel. By Martin Walker. Knopf. 305 pages. $25.95

Things are popping in pre-pandemic Perigord. Ivan is back in St. Denis with his new girl friend/chef from Japan, and the restaurant menu changed again. Bruno is adjusting to supervision of the entire police region, although the increased salary doesn’t really compensate for the increased responsibility. Pamela has taken Bruno back into her bed, but she’s been a bit chilly lately. Old man Driant, that  “chaud lapin” or hot rabbit, was found dead, an apparent heart attack, with a bottle of Viagra on his bedstand and a black hair on his pillow. Bruno suspects something is awry; the old man disinherited his children, and deeded his house and insurance over to a fancy retirement home just opened down the road. Balzac the dog has a big day coming up, his first time at stud Bruno’s ex, Isobel, will come down from Paris, and she and Bruno will help him along. Gilles, who came from Paris to marry Fabiola the doctor, is writing a book about the unrest in Ukraine.

But the big news – the Chateau Rock is up for sale. Purchased years ago by a famous rock ’n’ roller named Mcrae, the estate has been a minor tourist attraction, and his family’s home. The kids grew up there, they’re off to college, and his wife wants to find the rest of her life. The kids bring a passel of their pals to spend the summer, pilling out of a van to gorge on a gazpacho made by Bruno in one of Walker’s usual painstaking recipes. The group includes the son’s girlfriend, the daughter of a Russian pal of Putin.

The shooting, you say? Don’t hold your breath. It happens late in the book. Rest assured, however, that it will make St. Denis an international center involving finance, participants from France, Russia, Ukraine and Cypros, helicopters, swat teams, a sniper and Bruno.

Not as much food porn this time, although there is a lengthy preparation for lamb shanks that will send some readers slobbering. Martin Walker puts a lot of detail into the construction of a chicken coop for the animals left behind by Monsieur Driant. Pamela’s going to keep them. As for myself, I’m off to make Bruno’s ouef mimosa. Does any one know where I can get some alumettes?

 

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