THE BUGATTI QUEEN by Miranda Seymour
I know nothing about motor racing, nothing about Bugatti cars, nothing about the racing car drivers of the day and the racing car world, and very little about the lives of the rich and famous in France between the wars. Helene Delange, known publicly as Helle Nice, was one of the most famous, most successful and undoubtedly the most glamorous of them all. From a young age it seems she was destined for great things, born in 1903, just south of Paris, with a determination to escape the small town life that she was born into. She moved to Paris when she was 16 to become a dancer, and quickly found success in the music halls that were so popular. She quickly found a taste too for the glamorous life, with her bright, exhibitionist and risque personality, her beauty and insatiable desire for wealth,fame and men. Her dancing earned her enough money and attention to enter motor racing, cars still being very much the preserve of the very wealthy. She had many suitors and affairs, and one can't help wondering while reading of her numerous lovers,if she really only saw them as a means to an end, ie more fame and money. Her success as a woman racing car driver, of whom there were very, very few, took her to America where her fearlessness and wins turned her into an overnight sensation. By now very famous in the motor racing world, she returned to Europe, and became a regular driver on the Grand Prix circuit. Although she never won a Grand Prix race, she continued to excel with her competitiveness in this male dominated world, at the same time exploiting her femininity for all it was worth. This hedonistic life was brought to a sudden halt with a serious crash in Brazil in 1936, that left her seriously injured and a number of people dead. Although she was cleared of any responsibility for the accident, it weighed heavily on her and she never really got over it. Of course shortly after this, war intervened and effectively her racing career was over. She was by this time very wealthy, but had gotten involved with a much younger man to whom she spent lavishly on in order to retain his affections. Naturally he left and by the time the war was over she had nothing left. She remained in France throughout the war, and found herself accused of collaborating with the German occupiers, although this was never proved. Her final years were spent in poverty, at the mercy of a Paris based charity. By the time she died in the 1980s, she had been forgotten about, estranged from her family who couldn't deal with her notoriety, and buried as a pauper.
Although not a huge book by the standards of a biography, Miranda Seymour has written a very detailed account of a legend in motor racing circles. There is no doubt she was a pioneer, glamorous and beautiful to boot, which always helps, despite what the feminists would say! There is a lot in the book about motor vehicles and racing cars and engines and comparisons between one model over another and so on - petrol head stuff. But if this is not quite your cup of tea, do evere as the story itself is worth reading and very absorbing. Helle Nice was not in the same league perhaps as Jean Batten, but she is definitely the same type of woman.
THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNET'S NEST by Stieg Larsson
This is the third and final story in the Millennium trilogy that began with 'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo'. As readers of the previous two would expect, this is also a suspenseful, multi-stranded and complex thriller. I felt like I was reading an octopus with Lisbeth Salander as the body of the octopus, and all the strands and facets of what has become her very complicated life being the tentacles. Unlike the other two parts of the trilogy, she spends most of this story in a hospital bed, maybe that is where I get the idea she is the 'head' around which all the action happens. And boy does it happen. Goodies and baddies abound of course and all weave their complicated threads, the former wanting justice for Lisbeth and to uncover the dark secrets within the Swedish Secret Police; the latter wanting to ensure that Lisbeth remains locked up for the rest of her days. Even though she is bedridden, Lisbeth's unique computer skills once again come to the fore.
I keep trying to think about what has made this trilogy such compelling reading all over the world. There are the classic themes of good vs evil of course, the David and Goliath nature of Mikael/Lisbeth taking on the justice system in the 2nd book and the government in this 3rd book, the large number of strong, smart, positive female characters ranging from Lisbeth to the editor Erika Berger, to the various police officers and detectives and to Mikael's sister who more than delivers when she has her day in court. Plus you just can't get away from the fact that these books are purely and simply superb story telling. And who doesn't like a jolly good story, just like fairy tales when we were children, the goodies won, and the baddies didn't.
THE NIGHT BOOK by Charlotte Grimshaw
I read the author's short story collection 'Opportunity', which won the fiction prize at the NZ Montana Book Awards in 2007, and fell in love with it. Most of my experiences of short stories, especially New Zealand ones, have not been very good, but Ms Grimshaw's stories were, to me, works of art. I loved her observations of human behaviour, I can imagine her quietly watching those around her, visualizing their lives and then weaving her stories which seem to reflect so uncannily the little dramas that make up everyday life. I also enjoyed her follow up 'Singularity', all in the same vein, but just a little more sinister and unsettling.
The author has taken one of the stories in this latter collection, 'The Night Book', and made it the first chapter of the novel of the same name. This short story is the foundation of the novel from which the story unfolds, and is also the cornerstone for both the beginning and ending of the novel.
Simon Lampton is a gynecologist/obstetrician, married to Karen. They are parents of two children, when they foster, then adopt Elke who joins the family when she is about eight years old. Simon comes across as very close to his children, very empathetic to them, and develops a close bond with Elke who like him, is a bit of an insomniac and often sits up with him while he is doing work related stuff, hence the title. By the by, much of the action in the book takes place at night. His wife Karen is not a character who endears herself to the reader, being a bit of a flake, sycophantic, and far too consumed by the material world she lives in. It appears that Simon is not 100% happy with his very fortunate life, is mildly unsettled, and probably sitting on the tip of a mid-life crisis. Karen's best friend and her husband are heavily involved in the political campaign that wants to see the election of a new right-of-center prime minister after some years of left-of-center government. Simon, reluctantly, and Karen, enthusiastically, find themselves slowly pulled into the inner circle of the about to be PM David and his very beautiful, enigmatic wife Roza. The plot unfolds from the initial meeting of Simon and Roza. Simon is immediately attracted to Roza, but is not sure why, and this uncertainty and increasing dissatisfaction with his life takes him on a bit of downward spiral. Roza meanwhile, finds herself spiraling down even further with the pressure on her to be the perfect PM-to-be's wife.
The novel is based in Auckland, mainly in the wealthy eastern suburbs, but also in the poorer suburbs of South Auckland where Simon deals with his own demons. It could of course be any big city in any country in the world, but if you live in Auckland, or know the city well, it is very obvious where it is set. There are a number of events and people in the novel based very closely on real recent events, and I couldn't help comparing her writing of them with the real thing! As usual her writing of human behaviour and interactions is spot on, she writes beautifully of the human condition, the reasons and motivations people have for doing things.
But despite the writing, the book as a complete package just did not fully gel for me. Some days after finishing I still can't put my finger on it, it is almost as if there is too much going on, as if she has tried too hard to make something bigger and deeper than the short stories. And I really did have some trouble with Simon being the deep thinking, totally empathetic, in touch with his feelings kind of guy that the author has created! I just don't seem to know any men like that! Most of the characters are stereotypes of the wealthy eastern suburbs type, social and political climbers, and I really wonder if the author likes the type of people she is writing about. Apart from the one character from the wrong side of the tracks, I didn't actually like any of her characters. Perhaps that is what she set out to do - how too much money, too much time can corrupt the soul.
TRESPASS by Rose Tremain
Trespass - of land by foreigners and by one's own family members; of one's own personal body and personal space; of intruders into one's relationships. Trespass is the underlying theme of this novel. How this violation is dealt with by the various characters makes up the story line and the inevitable conflict that is at the core of any good story.
In the south of France is the mountainous region of the Cevennes. This is not a pretty postcard area of France, but one of rugged, mountains, full of valleys, rivers and forests with tortuous roads made famous by a journey Robert Louis Stevenson took on a donkey over 12 days and 220 kms. This sinister and dark environment is captured perfectly as the backdrop for the sinister and dark goings-on in this novel which centres on two sets of brother and sister, one set French, born and bred in the Cevennes; and the other English, relatively new arrivals to the area.
Aramon and Audrun are, I guess, in their late fifties or early sixties. They live on a family property, the brother in the dilapidated large house, the sister in a new bungalow on her portion of the land. The brother, like the house, is falling apart through personal neglect and the sister is biding her time until he completely falls apart. He is desperate to sell the property to the numerous English, Dutch and Germans eager to buy in the area, but the presence of his sister's house on what he considers is his land has prevented any sales to date.
Meanwhile not far away, Veronica Verey, a successful garden designer and aspiring writer, who is of a similar age, lives with her lover Kitty, a very average artist. Into this mix arrives Anthony Verey, an extremely successful antique dealer from London, who is beginning to find he is a bit of a has-been, and is looking for fresh pastures. His arrival sets in place a chain of events that result in death and destruction.
The writing is marvellous: suspenseful, descriptive, dramatic, all the while taking place in the dangerous and rugged terrain of the area, its secret forests, valleys and glades. The characters are fabulously vivid, I can picture exactly how they look, what they wear, how they move, their little behaviours and idiosyncrasies. Like peeling the proverbial onion, very gradually the author uncovers the background and secrets to the relationships between the two sets of brothers and sisters which sets the scene for how events unfold.
A first rate story, that is just a little bit scary and so remains with you for quite some after. And it is not the characters and the events which are scary but the fabulous landscape and scenery which stays with the reader! Next trip to France...