Book Review: The Old Bridge, a thriller by Andrew Turpin


The genocidal Bosnian war of the nineties has faded from Western consciousness. Not many people remember the brutal days when Sarajevo had to hang a curtain so snipers could not target civilian pedestrians, although anyone who was paying attention then remembers the pictures of those who didn’t escape, lying in the streets. The memory has faded along with the physical damage, and the region has once again become a tourist magnet.

But as Andrew Turpin knows very well and demonstrates clearly in his second Joe Johnson thriller, The Old Bridge, the horrors of that war and the fratricide that accompanied it are still a dark presence. The continuing war crimes prosecutions in The Hague remind us of that whenever they appear on the front pages.

The old bridge was, and is, in Mostar (map), which is in Bosnia and Herzegovina just 45 miles from Sarajevo. It crosses the river Neretva and was destroyed by tank fire precisely as Turpin outlines in his prologue. International sponsors rebuilt it, using old techniques and methods as much as possible, and it went back into service in 2004. (The Wikipedia page is fascinating.)

Turpin’s hero is Joe Johnson, a capable former CIA agent who ran afoul of his superiors and turned to freelance war-crimes investigations. This book tells of a dossier dating to the war that was thought to have been destroyed, but maybe wasn’t. If it’s found it will cause acute embarrassment in high governmental circles of the United States.

On the way to a very satisfactory resolution he takes us on visits to interesting places and introduces a compelling cast of characters. Other reviewers have dealt nicely with the plot.

Like Turpin’s first thriller, The Last Nazi, this story moves at a fast clip. The interaction between characters is good. I read it in one session and look forward to finding time to read his third, Bandit Country.

Another resource: Turpin wrote a detailed and fascinating summary of the background to The Old Bridge as part of his email list recently. I suggest you read it. It will provide a richer background to the story he tells in the book. You can find it here.

Highly recommended. (I read the Kindle version, which I purchased.)

To PREVIEW the book, click here.

♦♦♦

Andrew Turpin is a British writer who  worked for many years as a business and financial journalist before becoming a corporate and financial communications adviser with several large energy companies, specializing in media relations.

He originally came from Grantham, Lincolnshire, and lives with his family in St. Albans in Hertfordshire. His very nicely built website is andrewturpin.com

♦♦♦

A note about my own books

Amazon recently selected my first novel, Treasure of Saint-Lazare, for Kindle Prime Reading, which it calls a program “for its most engaged readers.” As a result, the book has vaulted upward in the sales rankings and landed firmly on several best-seller lists, the most prominent of which was the Action and Adventure list, where it reached #9.

It reached #2,000 among all paid Kindle books, the highest since it was first published in late 2012 (there are about two million ranked books. so that made me very happy indeed).

The third in my Eddie Grant series of Paris thrillers will be available in coming months. It’s not formally named yet, but it will be in my editor’s hands in a couple of weeks. Once again you’ll meet Eddie Grant, his beautiful wife Aurélie Cabillaud, their friends, Paris, and two new characters, both marine engineers in Miami who find themselves in Paris after a very narrow escape when their sailboat is bombed in Biscayne Bay.

Part of the action is set in Miami, much in Paris, and part in the caves of Hungary. There are politics, romantic walks through Paris, and the usual amount of romance.

If you’d like to join the Readers’ Group to learn when it will be available, or volunteer to be an early reader/reviewer, please click this link or the one in the box below. I’d be pleased to have you on the list, and you can unsubscribe any time.

I invite you to follow my blog, Part-Time Parisian. There, I post reviews like this one talk about my books, plus whatever other shiny bauble attracts my attention.

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F is for France — making sense of its ways, A to Z

I came late to this amusing and informative book, I’m sorry to say. It’s an amazingly detailed compilation and exploration of what the French would call curiosités or choses insolites but it’s also a broad cultural overview. It’s an example of the best of a certain type of book designed to explain France to English-speakers.

Between A and Z you will learn there are more than twenty-five varieties of garlic grown in France, and that the guillotine was designed by a doctor shortly before the French Revolution as a more humane means of execution. Attaching his name to it horrified him, and his family rechristened itself to escape the shame.

From Absinthe to Zidane

On the way to Zinedine Zidane you will make obligatory stops at Mata Hari, the legendary Dutch dancer executed as a spy (she was really a double agent) near the end of World War I, and a longish section on the history of restaurants, before ending with the entry for Zidane, the former soccer star. He used to be best known for the infamous headbutt during the 2006 World Cup final (which I saw on TV in Paris and will always remember), but he’s since become a respected soccer coach for Real Madrid.

Piu Eatwell is an Oxford graduate now living and writing in Paris, according to her website. She’s written several other books I was aware of but have not reviewed, including They Eat Horses, Don’t They, The Truth About the French, a well reviewed outline of the stories behind the myths Anglophones believe about the French. I found all of them on her list at Amazon.

F is for France was mismarketed, in my view. It should have been sold as a book of much broader general interest, like David Downie’s work, instead of a cabinet of curiosities. But I’m glad I came across it again. For a lover of France and Paris it is both an entertainment and a reference work. It will stay in my library.

My first exposure to F is for France was an advance reader copy I downloaded from Netgalley in 2016 and promptly forgot. When I ran across it again (while I was preparing Netgalley to support the publication of my next novel in a few months), I bought the Kindle version, which is the edition on which this review is based.

“If I flipped a franc, it would land on something worth swallowing”

“If I flipped a franc, it would land on something worth swallowing,” David Downie writes of his arrival in Paris in 1976. He remembers, as I do, gazing into the yawning seven-story hole where Les Halles had provided food and drink to all Paris until its relocation to suburban Rungis several years before, and he laments much more strongly than I do the second replacement for the historic Baltard canopies, the massive skate wing that covers the new and very chic shopping center. Les Halles has come a long way, from Zola’s Belly of Paris to yet another pricey and upmarket shopping center.
Downie’s newest book is the third in his recent series of memoirs/explorations of Paris. Beginning with Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light (2011) and continuing with A Passion for Paris: Romanticism and Romance in the City of Light (2016), the series explores his fascination with his home city. I still think Paris, Paris is the best guidebook I’ve read, and it’s not really a guidebook but a slow, guided introduction to fascinating aspects of the city. A two dozen peeks through a two dozen keyholes, which together add up to a rounded view.
The list of Downie’s books is long. There are more than a dozen on it. I haven’t read all of them but I’ve read and enjoyed a good sample, and many of them have food at their center. Or wine. Or food and wine.
Unless you are a serious student of French culinary history — enrolled at one of the big cooking academies, for example — I suggest you approach A Taste of Paris the way you’d approach a historical novel. It is nicely written, in Downie’s own idiosyncratic style, and full of facts and sidelights about the historical personalities, including the three King Louis <sup>(see links below)</sup> whose reigns led up to the Revolution. It’s entertaining.
As you get into it you’ll appreciate more the sheer depth of Downie’s knowledge about Paris, France, food, and any combination of the three. I still remember reading his Food Wine Burgundy and thinking it contained more information per square inch than anything I’d read. A Taste of Paris comes close.
Readers of this blog know that Paris is my favorite city, and that I spend a lot of time there researching and writing my novels. One of Downie’s sidelines is as a tour guide, and a few years ago my sister, visiting with friends from Texas, asked him to guide her group, and invited me to tag along. It was an impressive experience. Downie’s knowledge of the city’s history is precise and seems bottomless.

Midnight Pigeon at Les Halles

The part of A Taste of Paris I enjoyed most was Downie’s discussion of more recent years, such as the story of Les Halles. I remember with pleasure the midnight dinner of pigeon Jan and I shared with the financial editor of the International Herald Tribune and his wife in the early seventies, when we were freelancing in Frankfurt and writing business and financial stories in the German-speaking countries. Les Halles as Zola described it almost exactly a hundred years before, down to the rich onion soup that made up an obligatory part of every meal.
I’ve enjoyed meals at restaurants he mentions, many of them, and bought a peppermill at E. Dehillerin, which he calls “the most famous and labyrinthine of several kitchen supply emporiums” in the area. It’s like your grandfather’s hardware store.
And I’ve also visited and recommend the famous sculpture by Raymond Mason, in a side chapel of the imposing Saint-Eustache church which looks over Les Halls. In modern style, it depicts vendors when they left Les Halles for the last time in 1969. It’s colorful and atmospheric.
St. Martin’s Press, published Sept. 26.

Useful links

Book link on Amazon

Raymond Mason obituary discussing the sculpture (Telegraph)

David Downie’s website

When there’s more than one King Louis, what is the plural? Here’s one good exploration. Your mileage may vary.

Bastille Day 2017, from Arun with a View

One of my favorite blogs is Arun With a View, an old-fashioned blog run by Arun Kapil, an American from the Midwest of Indian origin who now lives in the Paris banlieu (he’s very insistent on this description in his blog).

In any case, Arun discussed at some length a couple of weeks ago the significance of the decision by the new French president, Emmanuel Macron, to invite President Trump to the traditional military parade that marks the storming of the Bastille, which kicked off the French Revolution just a few short years after the American one. Click here for the post.

Dinner at the Eiffel Tower

Macron also took the Trumps to a dinner at one of the fanciest restaurants of Paris, the Jules Verne, high up in the Eiffel Tower. Our president opined that the crowd at the base of the tower was one of the largest ever. Maybe he’s never been there on a Tuesday morning. Or a Wednesday afternoon.

Read and enjoy. Arun’s views are always pungent and frequently very insightful.

Paris, My Town – best of the city on Instagram

Paris pictures are a little industry all to themselves — I’ve even been known to make a few. But Instagram users have pulled more than a half-million together under the hashtag #ParisMaVille, and they are fun.

Here, for example, is The Balloon Diary, a short video that reminds me in a good way of The Red Balloon, the 1956 short film.

Balloons in the Abbesses métro station, Montmartre. Click to watch the video

It’s part of a website, TheBalloonDiary, made by Anna Dawson, an Australian who followed her muse to Paris. Her site said she and significant other made the video in collaboration with Autolib, the French car-by-the-hour rental service.

Continue reading “Paris, My Town – best of the city on Instagram”

It’s Music Day in Paris – and 100 degrees outside

We look forward to Fête de la musique every year we’re in Paris on June 21. It’s become an annual event in France and more than a hundred  other countries since the French culture minister, Jack Lang, started it in the early eighties.

The fête is being held under difficult circumstances this year. Paris isn’t yet Phoenix, but as I write this at 9 p.m., the temperature outside is 100 degrees fahrenheit or 38 celsius, the measure the French use. (Or, for that matter, the measure almost the entire world uses.)

The view from our living room window

This year we’re living until mid-July in an apartment on Rue Daguerre, a charming one-way street that is partly a pedestrian way, in the 14th arrondissement not far from the entrance to the Catacombs. I wrote a post about it a couple of years ago.

Continue reading “It’s Music Day in Paris – and 100 degrees outside”

Labor Day in Paris – friendly with a side of Molotov cocktails

MAY 1 IS LABOR DAY in almost all of Europe (the Netherlands and Switzerland are the exceptions), and in France it’s a day for political demonstrations led by the unions or the political parties — or both.

I never want to miss a party, so I went out to Place de la République this afternoon to see the sendoff of the third demonstration of the day.

Anti-Le Pen demonstrators. The sign says “Hope, here and elsewhere.” The statue represents Marianne, the personification of the French Republic.

Continue reading “Labor Day in Paris – friendly with a side of Molotov cocktails”

Review: A Divided Spy

A novel by Charles Cumming. St. Martin’s Press, Feb. 14, 2017. 356 pages. (Advance hardcover edition reviewed)

Just a few months ago we thought the Cold War was long over, but now it seems to threaten us anew. Ever since John le Carré brought the dark world of spy-vs.-spy into modern popular fiction, it’s been a durable plot standard that has given millions of us many hours of entertainment with a scary side order of education.

Charles Cumming’s A Divided Spy is an entertaining and thoroughly Le Carré-ish thriller set mainly in London. It’s the third featuring the ex-MI6 agent Thomas Kell, who in this book is a disaffected ex-agent, desolate because of the death of his girlfriend some months before, when he should have been euphoric because he’s successfully closed an important case.

A Divided Spy is the story of Kell’s hunt for the man, a Russian, he believes gave the order to kill the girlfriend, although he also blames his ex-chief as well.

Spy novels have evolved since Le Carré, not least because readers have evolved as well. Missing from this book is the bitter, hard-edged passion for the good side or the bad side. Instead, the characters are rounder, softer, more like educated Westerners of the Twenty-First Century. They aren’t so willing to break things. (Actually, a couple of them are, but they aren’t spies per se. More would be a spoiler.)

Cumming’s story reminded me a bit of Le Carré’s Carla books, the ones in which Smiley spends his career trying to entice the dark lord of Russian spycraft to come over to the other side. The reason he succeeds bears more than a passing resemblance to A Divided Spy, except that there’s much more of it in Cumming’s book.

And Cumming has taken the opportunity to throw in a terrorism subplot, an important one. What would any modern mystery be without ISIS?

If you read for the simple pleasure of the written word, you’ll find this one worth your time. Cumming’s technique is good — the plot and character elements are all in place, but you have to pay attention. Skip a sentence and you may find yourself puzzled by a character a few pages later. It will cost him a star or two from lazy reviewers, but it makes a better novel. Every word counts.

His ear for dialogue is snappy and the conversations are believable.

Highly recommended.     

Images from Charles Cumming’s website

Book page on Amazon.com

 

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Review: The Last Painting of Sara de Vos

A novel by Dominic Smith. Macmillan 2016. 304 pages. (Kindle edition reviewed)

Dominic Smith has accomplished one of the most difficult tasks a novelist can take on — He has maintained the continuity of a story that flashes back and forth in time over more than three hundred years, from New York of the 1970s to Holland of the 1630s, and then to Sydney at the turn of this century.cover-the-last-painting-of-sara-de-vos-mon-10-17-16

This outstanding novel tells the story of a painting and its creator, “At the Edge of a Wood,” painted by Sara de Vos in 1636 as a memorial to her daughter Kathrijn, who died at seven of the plague.

By the time you reach the last page, the painting will be an old friend, like one you visit often at the museum or, if you’re Martijn de Groot, an insecure New York lawyer who is the lucky third-generation owner of a golden-age apartment overlooking the Metropolitan Museum. The painting hangs above the marital bed, to be regarded “while he made slow, contemplative love to his melancholic wife….”

You will know from the beginning that there is no such painting, that neither Sara de Vos nor Marty de Groot existed (although Sara de Vos is based on the first women allowed to become members of the Dutch painters’ guild, a clannish and tight-knit group with arcane rules and rituals. Both will seem as tangible as your neighbor.

The other main character is Eleanor Shipley, known as Ellie, who is equally real. We meet her as a student and struggling young art restorer who lives in an undesirable corner of Brooklyn. Her tiny apartment, “Set above a Laundromat, has its own weather: a tropical monsoon during business hours and a cooler, drier climate at night.” It is so unkempt that she has allowed no to stranger visit (Marty will be the first). She shops at the store where “period conservators and forgers alike” go for their materials, such as the odoriferous rabbit skin she cooks into glue on her own stove, wondering if the travelers on the Gowanus Expressway look through her window and think she’s stirring porridge instead of melting animal hide.

The mention of forgers is the magic door to the entire story. In brief, impoverished Ellie is hired by a shady dealer to forge a copy of “At the Edge of a Wood,” which is then exchanged for Marty’s original.

The book imagines a turbulent life for Sara de Vos. Her daughter dies of plague; her husband first hides their financial distress then goes bankrupt and abandons her, rather than go to debtors’ prison. Dutch society of the seventeenth century is not kind to women in that situation. They inherit their husbands’ debt, although Sara is lucky. Her husband’s main debtor wants her to work off the debt by painting, which raises the question: Was “At the Edge of a Wood” her last? You decide.

There’s a long section about the odd and manipulative relationship between Marty and Ellie after he learns she’s the forger. An important part of the plot is the atonement both of them owe. Do they deliver?

In an oblique way, it reminded me of Ian McEwan’s Atonement, although I had a hard time figuring out which was the Briony figure.

It’s been a long time since I’ve enjoyed a novel so much, and longer since I’ve learned so much dominic-smith-mon-10-17-16from one. Dominic Smith, an Australian who now lives in Austin, must have done an immense amount of research in preparation, and it shows, but he escaped the pitfall of making the book sound academic and instead created his own art.

Highly recommended. ★ ★ ★ ★ 

(This review has also been posted on Amazon. I learned of the book from an Amazon marketing email and purchased the Kindle edition.)

Pictures from Dominic Smith’s web site

Book page on Amazon