BOOK CLUB: The Electric Hotel

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Author: Dominic Smith
ISBN: 978 1 76052 862 1
RRP: $32.99
Publication Date: June 2019
Publisher: Allen and Unwin
Copy: Courtesy of the Publisher

“The Electric Hotel” is a really wonderful novel that combines meticulously researched historical detail with a compelling character study and story which captivated me from the opening pages.

As a young man, Frenchman Claude Ballard is eking out a living as a photographer for a medical researcher, photographing lunatics, hysterics, and others of interest to the doctor. One night he sees one of the first silent movies – only a few minutes long, and reliant purely on the amazement of actually seeing pictures move. But he’s mesmerised, and within weeks has found the money for a moving camera of his own, won a position as a concession agent for the inventors, and headed to Los Angeles to sell tickets to movie shows.

Claude is something of a visionary, and is soon working out how to edit small strips of film together so that they can show clips that last more than a few seconds. It’s only a small step from there to begin making movies with actual stories and characters. Claude’s success grows, and he takes with him a small group of associates: notable among them is Sabine Montrose, the actress who seduces and inspires him.

But as the novel opens, Claude is a barely remembered figure, living alone at a run down Hollywood hotel, foraging for mushrooms and taking photos no-one will ever see. When a film student visits him, it opens him up to memories of the past.

I really enjoyed this novel. Although there’s clearly been a lot of research done to ensure the story is as historically accurate as possible, it’s woven seamlessly into the narrative and you never feel you’re being regaled with facts. The setting is a period which is relatively recent and yet which already feels so distant in time; and we all think we know something about the movies, don’t we? This novel opens up a seam of truly fascinating detail that makes me, at least, want to run off and read non-fiction on the subject. It’s a brilliant way of casting a different light on a subject that most readers will already think they know a bit about.

It’s the characters who draw you in and involve you in their story. Most of these characters have lifestyles readers won’t empathise with, but their feelings and problems are empathetic and engaging. Smith has an interestingly remote tone in the novel – a lack of punctuation for dialog, for example – which suits the sense of an era which has already passed. It won’t distance readers from the characters, though – if anything, it seems to amplify their feelings.

Overall, this is an excellent novel which will be particularly enjoyed by readers looking for strong characters. It will also have appeal to those wanting to painlessly absorb a little information about the dawn of the movie making industry.

Smith’s first novel, “The Last Painting of Sara de Vos” similarly combined historical detail with a strong story that fascinated me; I highly recommend it, too.

This guest review was submitted by Lorraine Cormack, one of our long-time Beauty and Lace Club members. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us Lorraine.

The Electric Hotel is available now through Allen and Unwin and where all good books are sold.

Thanks to Allen and Unwin 10 of our Beauty and Lace Club Members are reading The Electric Hotel so please be aware there may be spoilers in the comments below.

9 thoughts on “BOOK CLUB: The Electric Hotel

  1. Thankyou Beautyandlace and Allen&Unwin for the opportunity to read ‘The Electric Hotel’ by Dominic Smith.
    Such an interesting book and having had experience when very young with early home movies and sharing in the development of those I really enjoyed it.
    The story was based on some fact and relates the story of Claude Ballard’s life and occupation. In 1962 he finds himself being interviewed in Fort Lee, New Jersey (America’s first movie town) by Martin Embry a film history student with regards to his career in the very early silent movie industry.
    Beginning chapters start in 1895 where Claude is living in Paris, he becomes immersed in the film industry and with others producing films and is initially an agent for the Lumiere Brothers.
    Sabine Montrose is a star of the silent movies and stars in his production of ‘The Electric Hotel’ a controversial and exciting film, which the story follows and which makes exciting reading.
    The book follows the lives of people connected to the movie industry including an Australian stuntman. It tells of Claude’s life during the war when he was in Belgium during World War 1. where he was still involved in camera work.

    This was a great book full of facts and so many interesting characters, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

  2. Largely made up of lonely 85 year old silent movie pioneer, Claude Ballard’s reminiscences to young film student Martin, The Electric Hotel by Dominic Smith, and published by Allen & Unwin, charts the early days of cinema, Hollywood and the movie making industry.

    The detailed descriptions of early silent movies, the various players in the industry from inventors like the Lumiere brothers and Thomas Edison, to the film makers, actors, stuntmen, and production teams, and the way such movies were marketed to audiences, is quite engaging. Indeed the conflict between Thomas Edison with his single person “peep show” device, and the Lumiere Brothers cinema projector developed for larger audiences, provides a fascinating backdrop to the main story. The book has clearly been thoroughly researched.

    However, despite the intertwining of such interesting silent movie making facts with Claude’s personal anecdotes, (in particular his sad, romantic infatuation with the actress Sabine), on the whole, I found the book to be a fairly bleak and slow accounting.

    Unfortunately The Electric Hotel failed to fully hold my attention. The movie making detail became too much and I found it hard to connect with any of the melancholy cast of characters.

  3. Thank you to Beauty and Lace and Allen & Unwin for the opportunity to read The Electric Hotel by Dominic Smith.

    The main character is Claude Ballard a French pioneer of silent films. The story starts in Paris in 1895, Claude is a 22 year old who is working as a photographic apprentice in an asylum and hospital. Filming patients for a team of neurologists. He is sent to view the unveiling of the Cinematograph ( a film camera and projector) invented by the Lumiere brothers. Claude is so impressed he finds the money to become a liscenced cinematographer. He films several short reels and the brothers hire him as a concession agent and operator to tour America and Australia to demonstrate the device.

    Claude meets the legendary actress Sabine Montrose, he is so taken with her he makes her the star of his films. His last film made is called The Electric Hotel.

    Claude, now 85 and living in Los Angeles in a Hotel that has seen better days, is approached by Martin Embry, (a student who is writing his dissertation on innovation in American silent films before 1914 ) for an interview.
    Claude has become rather recluse and spends his days foraging for mushrooms in the hills of Los Angeles, cameras around his neck for those photo moments.

    Claude eventually agrees to meet Martin and to his surprise Martin discovers Claude has an apartment full of all of his films, unfortunately deteriorating. Claude gradually hands them all to Martin to be restored and archived. As Claude reminisces the films he reveals his life to us .

    The people is his past , his complicated relationship with Sabine and his time as a war photographer in Belgium during World War One are fascinating.
    You learn so much about the silen film era. Thomas Edison bringing law suits in an effort to manipulate the film industry, fortunes made and lost.

    The book is historical fiction and has been researched extensively.
    I really enjoyed the book and found it most interesting. Claude is a character you engage with and as each section of his life story is revealed, you want to know more.

    Dominic Smith has been inspired by the finding of silent films, stored away for decades in unusual places. A large proportion of silent films have been lost as the nitrate film is susceptible to decay.
    If you are a fan of silent films an actual silent film made in 1908 has been found and restored, it is a comedy fantasy called The Electric Hotel. It is on YouTube, runs for 9.32 mins and is well worth a look.

  4. The Electric Hotel was a story that held my interest for the majority of it, mainly because of the characters in it. I am a keen amateur photographer and found the facts about photography and movie making in the silent era fascinating but I had to put the book down around the middle for a few days. It became tedious, a chore to read. This is unusual for me as I usually like to know what is going to happen to the characters, can I guess the plot, are the characters going to stay true to character and find myself thinking about them.

    I picked it up again in the hope that something was going to happen and hold my interest again. It did only a few pages further on. But there was a lot of information contained throughout the whole storyline which showed some thorough researching. At the end I sat down to think did I enjoy the book. Yes I think I did, but I had to take it as a whole, to see it thru Claudes eyes at the end looking back as it was intended.

    The author, Dominic must have some imagination or interesting friends to create such vivid characters such as Sabine Montrose, Paval and Chip Spalding. How fascinating would it be if a character such as Claude was based on a true to life figure.

    I have borrowed his previous book, The last painting of Sara de Vos to see how it compares for my own interest.

    Thank you for the opportunity to read the Electric Hotel.

  5. The Electric Hotel contains the best in historical fiction: Interesting, entertaining, educational and an intriguing plot which ties it all together.
    The story moves easily between times from Paris 1895 to the battlefields of 1918 and forward to Los Angeles in 1962.
    Young Martin Embry is studying the development of silent films by tracing the life of Claude Ballard who was an innovative cinematographer and one of the many interesting characters in the movie world.
    They unpack the past and repair the original reels of the doomed movie The Electric Hotel which stretched the boundaries of film making and lifes’ morals but was ultimately shut down by red tape and hidden for decades.
    The complex characters of Sabine Montrose the sultry actress, Chip the flaming stuntman, Hal Bender the eternal salesman add to the fabric of the srtory.
    A lovely book to fill the hours.

  6. The Electric Hotel is a lovely historical book set back before the era of movies.

    It is evident there has been a HUGE amount of research and I feel the book is better for it. I feel like I have learnt a lot about the history of film.

    It tells a beautiful tale of Claude’s life & the obstacles he dealt with using this emerging media.

    Slow in parts but more fast paced towards the end. If you have an interest in film this is absolutely the book for you.

  7. A beautiful, enjoyable and fascinating story – from France to America and a world war in between, all brought together by the silent film era. Well researched and imagined. Dominic Smith is a brilliant writer. What a relief to read a book by someone who writes so eloquently, researches and clearly proofreads. I wasn’t sure such a writer still existed. Who else is sick and tired of all those books out there now that seem to be slapped together in a day?

  8. I’ve just finished reading The Electric Hotel and it opened my eyes to not only the early film industry but also some of the history of the time.

    Like some films, it was slow to start and really only picked up towards the end.

    The characters were detailed, and the amount of research was obvious.

    It’s story line read well and the movement between past and present added a lot of depth and understanding to the story.

  9. The Electric Hotel by Domenic Smith was a slow burn of a novel.

    Told as a yrecount by 85 year old Claude Ballard who was a pioneer of the silent firm era and now lives largely forgotten it is a story of intricate detail and characters.

    I enjoyed the mixture of historical reference to the era around World War 1 and the complicated relationships between the characters.

    I did find some sections a bit slow going but overall thoroughly enjoyed the book and learned something too.

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