THE SOLITUDE OF PRIME NUMBERS by Paolo Giordano (trans. Shaun Whiteside)

THE SOLITUDE OF PRIME NUMBERS by Paolo Giordano (trans. Shaun Whiteside)

Teenage years, almost always difficult to navigate, but most do not have the issues that Mattia and Alice have. Mattia once had a twin sister who was mentally retarded and more than a hindrance to Mattia. When he was six or seven he left her in a park, and she was never seen again. A burden too awful for any family or young child to deal with. Alice, on the other hand, suffered a serious leg injury while skiing, again as a young child, leaving her badly crippled. Both are lonely, both have over protective parents, both have put up massive barriers in dealing with the world around them, and their growing up years are tormented, confusing, awkward, and not at all happy. Through the teenage social rituals of parties, drinking and sex they find each other and over the course of the years never really let go.

They are good for each other, in their damaged tormented states and like all the best friendships, things do go awry from time to time. But they quickly realise they need each other, they may not actually survive this stage of their lives if they don't have each other. Mattia is a maths genius, and he comes up with the idea that he and Alice are 'twin primes', like 11 and 13, or 17 and 19, lonely individuals that are forever linked but forever separated. Although the bulk of the story takes place in the teenage years, it finishes when Alice and Mattia are in their late 20s/early 30s, by which time they have worked through much of their pain and developed into reasonably well functioning adults.

It is not a joyful or happy read, but there is always a sense of hope, that things are going to get better for these two, and they are such real people, You feel their pain, their dislocation. So sensitively and insightfully written, it is quite wonderful. 


THE INCORRIGIBLE OPTIMISTS CLUB by Jean-Michel Guenassia (Translated from French)

Can you judge a book by it's cover? In this case -I think so yes. The title for a start is captivating, and the photo - so full of sadness and loss, such a contrast to the title. And it is so long - 600 pages, how can anyone write about optimism for 600 pages! So your interest is piqued, immediately. And you open it....first sentence - "A writer is being buried today."

This is a story of friendship and exile, all taking place at the Incorrigible Optimists Club. Set in Paris over the years 1959-1964 against the backdrop of the Algerian war for independence from French rule, the narrator is 12 year old Michel Marin. Like many 12 year olds he is on the edge of childhood and adulthood, starting to ask questions of the world around him and the people in his life. He is going through the usual traumas that 12 year old boys face - parents, girls, his brother, school, annoying teachers and other adults, thinking about his future. He finds himself drawn to a nearby bistro which is the haunt of a number of exiles from the post war countries of the Iron Curtain, all runaways from communist/fascist regimes - Russia, Poland, Hungary, Germany. They have fled, left jobs, wives, children, in some cases a comfortable and privileged life. Paris is the only place they feel at home and, if anything, accepted.

Michel is both an amateur chess player and a photographer. The unifying force of the Optimists Club is chess. Some play brilliantly, others not. But it is the one language these sad, lonely, exiled and philosophical men have in common. Mastering the game of chess lets him into the stories and worlds of these men and how they came to be living in despair and poverty in Paris.. His own world is expanded and horizons broadened as a result. Stories of sadness, betrayal, and what it costs to follow your ideals. Michel is also facing the same issues in his own family with his brother joining the army to fight the Algerian rebels, then committing the ultimate crime of betrayal to the die hard French nationalist movement - desertion.

600 pages is a lot of pages to tell all these stories. But it never drags, the same steady pace is maintained throughout, the writing is magical, it simply never falters. Essentially a coming of age story, but also a documentary of the lives of those torn apart by the political doctrines that so savagely destroyed much of Europe some 70 years ago.

CALLING ME HOME by Julie Kibler

CALLING ME HOME by Julie Kibler

What a great story to read while on holiday. Cover shows a black boy and white girl, so you know it is a love story and a love story pretty much doomed to fail. Which is exactly what happens. But what terrific story telling it is, leaving the reader with the whole whirl of emotions during the course of the story.

Isabelle McAllister is 90 years old, lives in a small town in  Texas. Like any 90 year old she has a story or two to tell. Over a ten year period, she has developed a close friendship with her hairdresser, Dorrie, a black woman in her 30s. One day Isabelle asks Dorrie to drive her from Texas to Cincinnati, Ohio - a journey of some days - so Isabelle can attend a funeral. The resulting road trip, which would appear to be most unusual venture - elderly white woman being driven across coutnry by young black woman -  draws its fair share of comment and feedback from those they encounter on the way. But it does allow Isabelle to tell her story of forbidden love. Dorrie, a single parent, meanwhile has her own problems with her teenage son, and trying to find the courage to trust what appears to finally be a decent man in her life.

Isabelle's story, beginning in 1939, is riveting, Dorrie's not so much. In fact compared to the social mores of 1939, Dorrie really has nothing to complain about, and by the end of the book she has finally woken her ideas up, sorted herself and her family out. Whew. She really needed to give herself a kick in the pants! But Isabelle, wow she was quite something. As a teenager she falls madly in love with Robert, the teenage son of the family's housekeeper, Cora. Robert and his younger sister Nell, have grown up with Isabelle, whose father is the local doctor. It goes without saying that the ramifications of the love affair are huge, and the funeral being attended by Isabelle and Dorrie now, in 2013, is directly linked to these two families.

There is a lot going on in this story, and it would have been good to have some back story on Robert and his family, as well as Dorrie's family and her love interest. I can imagine black/white relations in 1939 Kentucky being pretty grim, and the writer certainly pulls no punches in her descriptions of these times. She has based the novel on her own grandmother's impossible love affair with a young black man, and it is Isabelle's story which holds the whole book together. Well worth reading, and it would make a fabulous movie/TV series.