Are there ANY bad restaurants in France?

 

Why, yes! Well, according to Alexander McCall Smith in his latest Paul Stuart novel, The Second-Worst Restaurant in France. (I still find it hard to suspend disbelief that France could have a terrible restaurant. Hence the appeal of Smith’s great title!)

But this book was delicious enough to make up for the book’s restaurant that’s being run into the ground by a restauranter-hopeful named Claude.

It reminded me of how much I love to read. More than that, though, it also appealed to my former self that used to work in the restaurant biz, and loved shows like Restaurant Impossible and Kitchen Nightmares back when I had access to cable in a non-rural, non-frontier locale. This book is a great literary version of that.

But, more than that, I found that the side character of Chloe (Paul’s mysterious and unconventional cousin) upholds what Alexander McCall Smith does best–using the main character to develop secondary characters that are just as interesting, if not more so, than the main character. And, without giving away too much, I also related to the character of Hugo–a sensitive individual trying to create his own life based on his ideals and passions. During the course of his journey, he’s aided by Paul in fulfilling these dreams. And I can really relate to Hugo at his stage in life, even though he’s a lot younger.

(This review contains spoilers!)

This is where I struggled with the book. I love the works of Alexander McCall Smith that I’ve read but my own life development stage and mindset as I enter middle age sometimes made The Second-Worst Restaurant in France an emotionally fraught read. And, boy, did I have bias in spades that was hard to put aside while I read the book that I won via a Goodreads giveaway hosted by the publisher, Alfred A. Knopf.

But that’s also the great thing about reading. It’s just you and the book and the characters that feel real enough to debate with in the privacy of your own mind and feelings.

As most writers will agree. Especially when you find out that Paul Stuart can’t work in his apartment where, for some reason, his girlfriend has decided to bring her noisy two cats for a staycation at his apartment, even though she has a flat of her own.

Anyone who’s ever had cats would be like “why on earth would she do that?” Naturally, the cats complain a lot to Paul about the situation, but he’s got a book to write, and eventually has to relocate his writing space into another apartment that Chloe offers him use of.

Poor Paul.

But the apartment doesn’t suit him either, as there are a bevy of young people upstairs doing what they do best–making sure everyone knows they are there with lots of loud music. 

And poor Paul ends up in a silly man-predicament with the younger woman, where he swears the interaction they have in the store is “innocent” to his girlfriend Gloria, who witnesses the weird olive-feeding interaction that somehow gets mistaken for a kiss. Let’s hear it, everyone: a big, resounding “Innocent, my a**!” *laugh*

So, poor, poor Paul has to pack up and relocate to the French countryside to finish his book that he doesn’t even want to write, but in between lecturing his experienced, worldly secret agent cousin about how to act and think, and nurturing poor, belittled, sensitive, chef-hopeful Hugo in fulfilling his cooking-promise, he realizes he doesn’t want to write the book he was working on, about the philosophy of food, and he also realizes that nobody will want to read it, either, despite the fact that his influential editor/girlfriend Gloria has pulled strings and gotten a publisher to back it.

So, wonderfully understanding and supportive Gloria arranges a whole other wonderful project for Paul to undertake, all the pieces fall into place, and everything is happily ever after–all thanks to Paul, presumably, not Gloria and Chloe (who comes to the aid of a local mother-to-be in an unconventional and fascinating way)–in the idyllic French countryside villa that I, and a million other hardworking writers who are also working day jobs (like me) and (unlike me) also trying to raise kids and maintain romantic relationships, are probably thinking that poor Paul is anything but poor.

But it’s proof positive that a main character doesn’t have to be likeable in order for you to fully engage with a book. And that’s why I like books so much. So much diversity there that gets left out of movies.

And, despite my mixed critique of Alexander McCall Smith’s book (which, again, I liked so much I read it twice!); yes, I’m a fan! I would definitely read more of the Paul Stuart series, including his first book in the series, and others. It comes down to the writing, which is, as always with Smith, so good!

And the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is fabulous, of course! Visit Alexander McCall Smith and discover his fantastic writing and compelling characters for yourself, here: https://www.alexandermccallsmith.com/.

 

Dancing Through Time and Space with Michael S. Fedison’s The Eye Dancers

Review: The Eye Dancers by Micheal S. Fedison

(possible spoilers, though I tried not to reveal too much)

I won’t be presumptuous enough to claim that I understand what it’s like to be a kid today, but I can speculate that some things never change.

And I haven’t forgotten, even after all these years, what it was like for me to be a kid.

What it felt like being bullied. The fear. The dread of having to go to school every day. The loneliness. Being left out of things by the popular or cool kids. The alienation coming at me from all sides. Always the misfit, and the last to be picked for the team.

How the classrooms felt airless: like you were drowning or suffocating. A tomb. A punishment that matched the cruel one that waited for me in the halls.

How the tiniest sounds and faintest smells seemed magnified in the forced silence and seemed to claw into your brain until you wanted to scream. Or to run and run and not come back. Or at least run as far as the school bathroom where you could get a breather from the stress of being cooped up. How you never felt like yourself until the last bell rang.

For me, it felt like hell on earth.

And the worst part of it all? What it felt like when no-one listened to you, or took you seriously?

Matter of fact, as a grown woman, I still face that sort of patronizing attitude. And it makes me just as angry as it did when I was a kid.

But, as an adult, as a teacher, I get it. Well, sort of, since I’m not a parent. But I imagine that it’s so hard to walk the line between giving kids a chance to be kids, but wanting to keep them safe.

The world–my world–was a confusing, ugly, terrifying place back when I was a kid–one I wouldn’t want any kid to have to live in.

And in the middle-grade/young adult book The Eye-Dancers, things haven’t changed much, in that aspect, in either of the book’s two worlds.

But the kids in Michael S. Fedison’s book? They don’t wait for grown-ups to listen. They act when they are suddenly thrust in a scary situation. They not only cope, but they keep fighting, although the odds are against them. They do this by joining forces, by combining their strengths, and forging bonds with those they wouldn’t ordinarily be friends with, as a way to navigate the challenges they face. Challenges that could be very real for many children today, but one that Fedison handles with appropriate discretion for the kids he’s writing for.

Could it be a Goonies-like book for young people of this generation? I don’t know. I don’t even know if I’m reading into the book’s premise too much with my grown-up mind, but I would love to have kids reading something that shows young people they can have agency, that they can make things better, that they can change worlds with their actions. That they can still be heroes even if they’re scared and confused and unsure of themselves, and their place in the world. That within all of this coming-of-age madness, there can be moments of hope that will carry them through the darkness of life’s changes. And that, as I think Fedison’s character Mitchell Brant realizes, are the things that can make reality as wonderful and sustaining as our youthful dreams (referenced from pages 317-320).

My hope is that books like this are enough to carry them into finding their dreams as they move into adulthood. And I hope that adulthood doesn’t come too calling too soon for them–that they still have a chance to be kids no matter how the world changes around them.

(I’m considering donating this book to one of the local school libraries. After I read the follow-up Singularity Wheel, of course! Or I’ll just hoard it with all the rest of my books, most likely.)