Review: Paris at the End of the World: How the City of Lights Soared in Its Darkest Hour, 1914-1918 ~ John Baxter

Paris at the end of the worldA preeminent writer on Paris, John Baxter brilliantly brings to life one of the most dramatic and fascinating periods in the city’s history.

From 1914 through 1918 the terrifying sounds of World War I could be heard from inside the French capital. For four years, Paris lived under constant threat of destruction. And yet in its darkest hour, the City of Light blazed more brightly than ever. It’s taxis shuttled troops to the front; its great railway stations received reinforcements from across the world; the grandest museums and cathedrals housed the wounded, and the Eiffel Tower hummed at all hours relaying messages to and from the front.

At night, Parisians lived with urgency and without inhibition. Artists like Pablo Picasso achieved new creative heights. And the war brought a wave of foreigners to the city for the first time, including Ernest Hemingway and Baxter’s own grandfather, Archie, whose diaries he used to reconstruct a soldier’s-eye view of the war years. A revelatory achievement, Paris at the End of the World shows how this extraordinary period was essential in forging the spirit of the city beloved today.

2 Thumbs-UpI was really looking forward to sitting down and reading this book, after all according to the title I would get an insight into what life was like for the French, in particular Parisians during World War One.  What I actually found between the pages was more a memoir written by the Author of his search for his Grandfather who was in Paris during the ‘war to end all wars’.

Questions I wanted to know such as the Parisians reaction to a war raging so close to their city was not covered and, although the journey of discovery the Author writes about was marginally interesting, not enough was in it to stop me asking myself what this had to do with not only Paris, but the way it reacted to the Great War.

This book turned out to be a huge disappointment as I was hoping for more of a social history of Paris, a city I greatly love and another perspective on the attitudes of the people who lived here and in this time.  Each time the reader comes close to Paris it seems as if the Author decides to take the left fork in the road instead of following the path into the city, some readers may not find this irritating but for me it was a major peeve, and was one of the reasons this book only receives a 2 thumbs rating.

If the is book had been listed as a memoir the disappointment I felt in it would not have been so great and, it would probably have received a higher rating; also if this book were re-categorized into the memoir genre, I feel it would reach a wider, more satisfied, reading audience than it possibly does under its current classification.

I would recommend this book to those who enjoy memoirs, but I highly doubt I will read anything else by this Author.

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Review: Dark Paradise ~ Robert Macklin

dark paradiseNorfolk Island isolation, savagery, mystery and murder.

Aren’t remote South Pacific islands supposed to be paradise? Perhaps, from a distance, Norfolk Island looks a peaceful place lush with tall pines. But look closer and that idyllic facade is shattered.

For all of the 220 years we have known it, Norfolk s story has been one of darkness, pain, rage and horror. Long-buried bones and axes hint at the violence before Captain Cook arrived and claimed the place for England. And then the horror truly began. From its earliest days, the isolation of life on this rocky outcrop took its toll.

Robert Macklin, author of the bestselling SAS SNIPER, tells the vivid, bewitching story of how a unique lifestyle and culture evolved amongst the almost two thousand inhabitants. From a brutal penal colony, a refuge for descendants of the Bounty mutineers when they outgrew Pitcairn Island in 1856, to the murder of Janelle Patton in 2002, Norfolk Island is exposed like never before. A place full of shadows and wrongful deaths, its history is a mesmerising tale all the more powerful because it is true.

I have to tell you, Satan lives here. Norfolk Island resident to the author, 2011.

1 Thumbs-UpOh dear.  I was so looking forward to sitting down and soaking up an intriguing and interesting read when I read the synopsis for this book and, unfortunately I was sorely disappointed.

It was not an immediate disappointment, it was one that gradually crept up as I progressed through the book, and took the form of some major factual errors which most readers will pick up the minute they come across them.  The result of these were that I felt this Author had not done as much research into their topic as they possible could before putting the words on paper, and from this point onwards for me it rather invalidated any other point they were trying to make.  Yes, the location was part of the British Empire, and yes it was originally used by them as a penal colony; the Author could get this facts correct, what happened with the glaringly incorrect ones?  If ever a book spiralled out of control in the worse possible way, this has to be that book.

In a book of this kind, much could have been gained, and an extra dimension added by including some by including some documented narrative from actual Islanders themselves as to the events covered, unfortunately this was not the case and resulted, in my opinion in a rather flat, one-dimensional piece of work.  There were so many avenues of research that could have been followed, and were left ignored in the favour of the violence and abuse that took place, which resulted in this being a rather dull read.  Another plus that this book could really have used were the skills of an excellent proof reader and a bold editor, there were so many bad typos in this book that, at one point I was beginning to think that somehow the unedited copy had made it into print instead of the finished piece of work; even the synopsis on the back of my library loan had typos, maybe I should have heeded this subliminal warning and left the book on the shelf.  If you are interested in the history of Norfolk Island, this book is worth reading to a point, and that point is that it should not be read as an only source on the subject but in conjunction with other, better researched pieces.

I find, with this book, I cannot recommend it to anyone with a clear conscience, and based on this piece of work I doubt I will read any other works by this Author.

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An Interview with Mary-Rose MacColl

Mary-Rose MacColl picMary-Rose MacColl discussed the inspiration behind her book about World War One, In Falling Snow.

In your Author’s Note, you write about accidentally stumbling upon Women of Royaumont: A Scottish Women’s Hospital on the Western Front in a library. What inspired you to interweave the story of Royaumont with that of a female doctor battling sexism in the 1970s?

I was really interested in these women from my grandmother’s generation who’d achieved something extraordinary at a time when it was very difficult for women to pursue professional lives. I very much wanted to honor them and was surprised that their story hadn’t yet captured the public imagination. The seventies was another key period for women in professions. Grace is the first generation of women to “have it all.” I didn’t think of these things consciously while writing. Iris was always going to be reflecting on her past experience at a later time. Grace walked in one day and started bossing her grandmother around. She happened to be part of the first generation of women who were mothers and doctors and it was just a lovely time to write about.

You gave Iris Crane your grandmother’s surname. Do they share any other characteristics?

For me, writing always has an intellectual trigger and an emotional trigger. I was very close to my maternal grandmother, Meta Crane, who was one of those grandmothers who made everything right in my young life. She died soon after I came across the women of Royaumont. She was about the right age to have served in World War I and she was a nurse. I started to wonder what her life might have been like if instead of doing the things she’d done—marrying my grandfather, running his medical practice and raising four children—she’d gone to Royaumont. She and Iris do share some qualities in common. They’re both nurses who grew up on a property called Risdon in the country west of Brisbane in Queensland. My grandmother married Al (Alban Lynch not Alastair Hogan) and the two Als are both doctors whose practices are in Fortitude Valley.

Is Dr. Frances Ivens based upon the real founder and head of Royaumont? Does the abbey where the hospital was established still exist?

Oh yes, all the characters at Royaumont other than Violet and Iris are based on the real doctors and nurses and orderlies who worked there. Miss Ivens was the medical chief of the hospital. Obviously my character is imagined—I never met the real Frances Ivens—but her quick assessment of a situation (sometimes to a fault), her organisational skills (or lack thereof when it comes to details!), confidence and especially, her bedside manner, were all a matter of record. As for the abbey, it’s now a cultural foundation for France and I was very lucky to stay there for a week while researching the novel which allowed me to walk through those corridors, up the stairs where the orderlies carried patients, to the wards where the patients were cared for. It’s a truly amazing place.

Between the Senegalese conscripts, the firing squads, and the French soldiers’ “precious pinard,” you’ve recreated the feel of World War I in astonishing detail. How long did it take you to research this book?

I first read the history of Royaumont in Eileen Crofton’s The Women of Royaumont which was very helpful (it’s being republished this year as Angels of Mercy by English publisher Birlinn). From there, I read mainly first–hand accounts of the experiences of doctors, nurses and soldiers during the war. I was quite nervous about writing some of the marginalised stories, including those of African soldiers and I was lucky enough to find an audio–recorded account of a Senegalese soldier which helped me understand better what war must have been like for these people. I also read some of the broader history to know what happened when and where. I tend to write first and research later so the whole process was years rather than months.

In an earlier nonfiction work called The Birth Wars, you wrote about the conflict between those who view birth as a medical procedure and those who see it as a natural process. In Grace, you created an OBGYN who views pain relief during childbirth as a woman’s right. What drew you to return to the subject in this novel?

Maternity care, in Australia and elsewhere, is in a state of entrenched conflict. Instead of people on both sides of that conflict working together to make sure women get the best evidence–based maternity care, in many care environments, the two sides are at war with one another. Although the battles were different in the seventies from how they are now, the war is the same. When I came to write The Birth Wars, I was amazed that in the twenty–first century we haven’t sorted this out. I came back to this conflict with In Falling Snow because it was still in my mind. It’s also relevant to the novel’s themes.

In Falling Snow displays a thorough understanding of medicine, particularly of obstetrics. Was this a career you once considered pursuing yourself?

I didn’t ever consider a career in medicine. I have worked closely with doctors on reviews over the years—I worked in universities for ten years and as a consultant writer on a number of health and medical reviews—and met many obstetricians and midwives while researching The Birth Wars. Grace’s character came very naturally, but I also wanted to make sure the obstetrics in the novel was true–to–life. An obstetrician friend kindly read the novel in manuscript for me.

Would you consider this a feminist novel?

In Falling Snow first and foremost tells the story of the women of Royaumont and they were extraordinary. It certainly reflects on the issues facing those women who wanted to pursue careers at the time when this was largely unavailable to women. In the seventies, again women were negotiating career and family issues. They were great times to write about.

In Falling Snow

I will be reading and reviewing this novel in 2014.

This interview was first featured on bookbrowse.com on 12 September 2013, and has been abridged for inclusion here.

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