The Paris of the West is a historical romance set in San Francisco, a city we love to visit for its scenic harbour setting, great cafes and markets. In the sixties it was the heart of the hippie culture. Some are still around and contribute to its laid back and slightly alternative atmosphere
But The Paris of the West is set further back in time, in the late forties. Karen McMillan paints a fascinating picture of some of San Francisco’s historic neighbourhoods, especially the Fillmore District which at that time was the centre of jazz and filled with nightclubs and theatres. Sadly it was later demolished to make way for new developments. Part of the novel also takes place a little further afield in charming Sonoma wine country.
The story starts shortly after World War Two with the arrival of a small group of Polish survivors, Celina, her husband Rafael, brother in law Marek and father in law. They have high hopes of making a new start and to put the horrors of war behind them
Celina, a member of the resistance had been caught by the Nazis, who used her as a human guinea pig and tortured her in the notorious Ravensbruck concentration camp. Her husband Rafael and Marek her brother in law also fought in the resistance. Rafael later trained with the RAF as a fighter pilot.
Rafael and Marek’s parents, who emigrated from Poland at an earlier date had done well for themselves and established a shipping company called the Great Star Line. They warmly welcome them into their home, have jobs lined up for their two sons in the shipping company, and very generously give Rafael and Celina enough money to put a deposit on a home of their own.
Although extremely grateful, jobs as clerical assistants are not the kind of jobs the brothers are after. Before long Marek, a writer is lucky to land a current-affairs columnist job with the San Francisco Chronicle. But Rafael cannot return to his job as a pilot due to his post–traumatic stress disorder so is stuck behind a desk. And Celina who would love to teach finds learning English very challenging.
Memories of the war continue to haunt Rafael and Celina. Their emotional damage is so severe that they are unable to resume their sex life and to realise their dreams of starting a family. A further complication is the growing attraction between Celina and her brother-in-law Marek.
Then a sultry beautiful jazz singer called Serafina arrives on Marek’s horizon and a new romance is on the horizon but there are complications…
All the twists and turns in their love lives make it a romantic page turner with many a heart wrenching and bittersweet moment but also a gradual healing. It is a well-researched read. Karen interviewed a concentration camp survivor as part of her research for this book which makes the story ring true.
The Paris of the West is particularly relevant right now with the recent arrival of the first group of Syrian refugees in New Zealand and more to follow before too long. It made me think of the challenges they too face and the emotional scars they carry with them. And how a warm welcome and ongoing support will help them to rebuild normal lives.
Title: The Paris of the West Author: Karen McMillan McKenzie Publishing RRP $34.99
Molly and the Cat Café is told through the eyes of a cat which is a very novel approach. The author has two cats of her own, is an astute observer of feline behaviour and loves imagining what goes on inside their heads. They were the inspiration for this relaxing heart-warming read.
Molly’s owner, a lovely old lady, develops Alzheimer’s. Her nasty impatient son gathers up sacksful of her belongings, telling her she no longer needs them, before dispatching her to an old people’s home. Molly herself is dumped at the house of one of his friends where she is terrorised by three dogs.
Desperate to find another loving home she embarks on a gruelling journey facing hostility from other cats whose territory she encroaches on, and starvation. But she never stops dreaming of a better future. And one day, it does happen. A warm and caring café owner and solo Mum called Debbie welcomes her into her home.
Debbie knows how tough life can be. She is struggling to keep her business afloat as well as coping with a difficult teenage daughter.
Molly, who is the narrator, tells us how Debbie’s life unfolds. But she herself also faces a new threat. For some mysterious reason a local old battle axe wants Debbie’s business to fail. She lays a complaint about Molly’s presence in the café which could lead to its closure.
There is also a romantic element. The local plumber, who helps her to deal with some emergencies looks like a promising suitor. But recently divorced Debbie is unsure that she is ready for a new lover.
As I was reading it and thought how this story mirrored our own reality. Neisha our adopted cat had also been a runaway. When my three granddaughters moved into the home of their stepdad his two dogs kept chasing her. Terrified, she left. After much searching and advertising they found her emaciated and barely recognisable several kilometres away. We’ll never know how she managed to survive, whether she hunted for mice and birds, or stole food from other cats’ bowls.
She had to be re-homed at our place where the tables have been turned and she lords it over Abbie our lab. When she raises a claw in his direction he scoots off.
I glanced over at her snoozing in a sunny corner of our lounge looking sleek and healthy again. She woke up and gave me the kind of wide eyed stare that cats do and I wondered how she sees us!
Title: Molly and the Cat Café Author: Melissa Daley Publisher: McMillan NZ RRP $24.99 paperback
By Lyn Potter. Read more here.