Reading in the French Riviera

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It’s been over over a month since my last entry, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been reading! I spent a week in Cannes, France during the Cannes Film Festival at the end of May.  While I can’t say I had any encounters with celebrities nor was I able to view any films (Cannes Film Festival is essentially the ULTIMATE secret society), I had a thoroughly relaxing week drinking TONS of amazing wine, eating lots of delicious food, and reading a huge stack of books.

I started my week of reading and relaxation by spending a day on the balcony of my AirBnB reading Omar El Akkad’s American War:

An audacious and powerful debut novel: a second American Civil War, a devastating plague, and one family caught deep in the middle a story that asks what might happen if America were to turn its most devastating policies and deadly weapons upon itself.

Sarat Chestnut, born in Louisiana, is only six when the Second American Civil War breaks out in 2074. But even she knows that oil is outlawed, that Louisiana is half underwater, and that unmanned drones fill the sky. When her father is killed and her family is forced into Camp Patience for displaced persons, she begins to grow up shaped by her particular time and place. But not everyone at Camp Patience is who they claim to be.

Eventually Sarat is befriended by a mysterious functionary, under whose influence she is turned into a deadly instrument of war. The decisions that she makes will have tremendous consequences not just for Sarat but for her family and her country, rippling through generations of strangers and kin alike.

It just so happened there was a bakery and a mini mart about a mile down the road so after stocking up on French wine, lots of bread, and some basic groceries, I was able to essentially read this book in one sitting.

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Breakfast!
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Dinner!

I essentially flew through El Akkad’s novel because I was unable to put it down.  That’s not to say it was a perfect novel and it was not as heavy in character development (for those surrounding Sarat) as I usually like, but there was something captivating about El Akkad’s style and the choices he made in portraying a frighteningly believable future of the United States.

Sarat’s story is gut wrenching and while she may not necessarily be the most “likable” of characters or easiest to get “close” to, my heart hurt for her throughout the novel.  It was also refreshing to read a book that not only involved a (strong!) female lead, but a whole cast of diverse characters.  While understanding the history of how the U.S. came to be in the state it was at the time of the story was intriguing, it was not necessary.  American War was really more of a personal narrative about people rather than events and I am definitely looking to reading more of El Akkad’s work in the future because of this.

After finishing my first book of the week, I took some time to explore Cannes, which included my usual hunt for more obscure (aka “less touristy) places to visit.  Cannes is not the place to go if you’re hoping to visit museums, historical landmarks, or other places that are typical of European treks (if that’s more important to you, Paris and Marseilles are a short train ride away!).  I knew this prior to visiting so I prepared by spending some time researching the neighborhoods that I knew I’d want to explore (i.e. the bars that catered more to locals than tourists).

I immediately fell in love with Le Suquet (the Old Town) and its winding, pedestrian-only cobblestone streets.  After having spent so much time among throngs of people visiting the restaurants near the beach, Le Suquet felt much more like the France I had become accustomed to on prior trips abroad.

Hidden off the main winding road that Le Suquet is most known for, I found the most amazing bar – Le Jardin Secret.  I can truly say it is one of the places I still miss now that I’m back home.

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After recovering from a bit of a food coma, I found some time to pick up my next read of the week – B.A. Paris’ Behind Closed Doors.  I had actually read Paris’ second novel, The Breakdown, first and had high hopes for her debut since it seemed that the overall Goodreads consensus was that Behind Closed Doors was the preferred of the two.

Everyone knows a couple like Jack and Grace: he has looks and wealth, she has charm and elegance. You’d like to get to know Grace better. But it’s difficult, because you realize Jack and Grace are never apart. Some might call this true love.

Picture this: a dinner party at their perfect home, the conversation and wine flowing. They appear to be in their element while entertaining. And Grace’s friends are eager to reciprocate with lunch the following week. Grace wants to go, but knows she never will. Her friends call—so why doesn’t Grace ever answer the phone? And how can she cook such elaborate meals but remain so slim?

And why are there bars on one of the bedroom windows?

The perfect marriage? Or the perfect lie?

Much like American War, I essentially power-read this book as well.  Much like my experience with The Breakdown, Paris’ first novel was fast-paced and absorbing.  While a bit more “fluffy” than I typically like for my psychological thrillers, I didn’t care about the predictability of much of the plot line since Paris’ had already sucked me down the rabbit hole and I knew I couldn’t stop until I had seen if I was right about the ending (I was!).

While I would categorize Behind Closed Doors as more of a “summer” read, that’s not to say that Paris isn’t a talented writer.  If anything, I think her ability to spin a somewhat “typical” storyline into something so absorbing and anxiety-inducing is a highlight of her skill as a storyteller.

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(As it’s easy to see in the above picture, A LOT of wine, bread, and cheese were consumed during my week in Cannes!)

My trip wouldn’t have been complete without a trip to the waterfront to see all the yachts.  Luckily, I had plenty of afternoons filled with rosé, macarons, and walks along the beach.  It seems there isn’t a single thing in life that the French don’t do best!

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Lucky for me, French crime fiction also happens to be in that category as well.  I wouldn’t be a proper bibliophile if I hadn’t decided to drag along a suitcase filled with Pierre Lemaitre’s Brigade Criminelle Trilogy.

While they might have clashed a bit with my beautiful, peaceful surroundings, it seemed appropriate to finally dive into Lemaitre’s well-known trilogy while still in France. Unlike some other series, it was necessary to read the Verhoeven books in their rightful order and so I began the trilogy with Irene.

Camille Verhoeven, whose diminutive stature belies his fierce intensity, has reached an unusually content (for him) place in life. he is respected by his colleagues and he and his lovely wife, Irene, are expecting their first child.

But when a new murder case hits his desk–a double torture-homicide that”s so extreme that even the most seasoned officers are horrified-Verhoeven is overcome with a sense of foreboding.

As links emerge between the bloody set-piece and at least one past unsolved murder, it becomes clear that a calculating serial killer is at work. The press has a field day, taking particular pleasure in putting Verhoeven under the media spotlight (and revealing uncomfortable details of his personal life).

Then Verhoeven makes a breakthrough discovery: the murders are modeled after the exploits of serial killers from classic works of crime fiction. The double murder was an exquisitely detailed replication of a scene from Bret Easton Ellis”s American Psycho, and one of the linked cold cases was a faithful homage to James Ellroy”s The Black Dahlia.

The media circus reaches a fever pitch when the modus operandi of the killer, dubbed “The Novelist,” is revealed. Worse, the Novelist has taken to writing taunting letters to the police, emphasizing that he will stop leaving any clues behind unless Verhoeven remains on the case.

For reasons known only to the killer, the case has become personal. With more literature–inspired murders surfacing, Verhoeven enlists the help of an eccentric bookseller and a professor specializing in crime fiction to try to anticipate his adversary”s next move. Then Irene is kidnapped.

With time running out, Verhoeven realizes that all along he”s been the unwitting dupe in The Novelist”s plans to create an original work of his own. Now, the only person in the world the commandant truly cares for is in danger, and a happy ending seems less and less likely as it becomes clear that the winner of this deadly game may be the man with the least to lose.

While absolutely terrifying, Irene was also one of the best crime fiction novels I have read yet! Lemaitre has this incredible ability to slowly unravel his story lines until the very last sentence.  I actually found myself holding my breathe until I closed the book at its conclusion! For those already familiar with Lemaitre’s Blood Weddingit’s important to know that he does not shy away from violence or gore.  With that being said, Lemaitre does not include horrible images solely for shock value.  Unlike the typical slasher movie or piece of pulp fiction, Lemaitre is a skilled writer and his novels are some of the smartest examples of crime fiction out there (and also so much fun to read!).

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Despite only being in Cannes for a little over a week, I still managed to also read through the next two novels in the trilogy: Alex and Camille.  Much like with Irene, I thoroughly enjoyed the complexities of both the plot and the characters in Alex and was thrilled to learn that it is being turned into a movie.  Unfortunately, Camille was not as engaging for me and felt a bit repetitive at times as Lemaitre continually reminds the reader of small bits of information that were already covered in the prior two books. While disappointed in the end of the trilogy, Irene and Alex were so enjoyable that I would still recommend the full trilogy to anyone who enjoys authors like Jo Nesbo or Tana French (damaged detectives and complicated murders!).

While my time in Cannes was short, I still managed to pack in a ton of amazing experiences and plenty of quality reading time.  Although everyone else may have spent their time in Cannes absorbed in the Cannes Film Festival, I still managed to have an amazing week in this quaint little beach town.

But what blog post about Cannes, France would be complete without the red carpet? As I stated in the beginning, I never did run into any celebrities, but while wandering on my own one night, I happened upon the main entrance as staff were cleaning up.  With security at the level it was at all week, it was a total stroke of luck that I managed to get so close to the red carpet!

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Au revoir and bonne nuit my fellow book lovers!

 

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