MLA Platinum Award Press Release

Reviews by Cloggie Downunder

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The October List
by Jeffery Deaver
Original and very imaginative. (8/21/2015)
The October List is a stand-alone novel by popular American author, Jeffery Deaver. Early on a September Sunday evening, Gabriela McKenzie waits nervously in a “safe” apartment with minder, Sam Easton, for news of the negotiation with her daughter’s kidnapper. She is hoping her new (and apparently wealthy) friend, Daniel Reardon and his expert team can save Sarah. Her kidnapper is demanding a large sum of money, and something called The October List. But when the door opens, a shock awaits: the kidnapper, gun in hand, enters.

In this unusually constructed thriller, Deaver begins with the final chapter and works back through the events of the previous days. The first (ie last) chapters are quite confusing, but if the reader persists, the reward is a cleverly put-together story that is filled with twists, turns and red herrings. As the story progresses (?) in reverse, the reader learns that none of the characters is quite who or what they seem. Some arouse suspicion from the start, but others are a complete surprise. Original and very imaginative. 4.5 stars
Go Set a Watchman
by Harper Lee
It’s not To Kill A Mockingbird, but it’s still a good read! (8/11/2015)
Go Set a Watchman is the second published novel by American author, Harper Lee. It was written before To Kill A Mockingbird, but not published until 55 years after that book. Now twenty-six years old and living in New York, Jean Louise Finch travels to Maycomb for her regular two-week visit with her ageing father. Atticus is seventy-two and often debilitated by rheumatoid arthritis, but he does have young Henry Clifton to work his law practice, and his sister Alexandra lives in the Finch house to help with daily activities. Henry is pressing Jean Louise to marry him, and although Aunt Alexandra considers him unsuitable, Jean Louise finds herself actually thinking seriously about it:
“She was almost in love with him. No, that’s impossible, she thought: either you are or you aren’t. Love’s the only thing in this world that is unequivocal. There are different kinds of love, certainly, but it’s a you-do or you-don’t proposition with them all”

But just a few days into her stay, she discovers, quite by chance, something that rocks her to the core, something that has her actually doubting the foundation of her values. Until then, “She did not stand alone, but what stood behind her, the most potent moral force in her life, was the love of her father. She never questioned it, never thought about it, never even realized that before she made any decision of importance the reflex, ‘What would Atticus do?’ passed through her unconscious; she never realized what made her dig in her feet and stand firm whenever she did was her father; that whatever was decent and of good report in her character was put there by her father; she did not know that she worshipped him”

There has been quite some criticism of this book, and some of that is valid. Jean Louise’s rant in Part VI could certainly do with editing, and while it does not sparkle quite like To Kill A Mockingbird, and perhaps the characters are not quite as well-formed or appealing as that book, nonetheless, Go Set A Watchman has humour and wisdom. It forms a welcome complement to To Kill A Mockingbird, and Jean Louise’s reminiscences of her childhood are quite delightful. At least one passage is lifted wholly from this book and inserted into TKAM, perhaps hardly surprising.

Lee’s character descriptions are every bit as good as in TKAM: “She was a person who, when confronted with an easy way out, always took the hard way” and “She was completely unaware that with one twist of the tongue she could plunge Jean Louise into a moral turmoil by making her niece doubt her own motives and best intentions, by tweaking the protestant, philistine strings of Jean Louise’s conscience until they vibrated like a spectral zither” are examples.

A knowledge of Civil Rights legislation in the mid-fifties comes in handy, but Uncle Jack’s words of wisdom are as succinct and universally applicable as they ever were, as demonstrated by: “Prejudice, a dirty word, and faith, a clean one, have something in common: they both begin where reason ends” and “…the time your friends need you is when they’re wrong, jean Louise. They don’t need you when they’re right”.

It’s not To Kill A Mockingbird, but it’s still a good read!
Nothing Gold Can Stay: Stories
by Ron Rash
Rash’s stories are pure gold. (7/26/2015)
“I’d fish until it was neither day nor night, but balanced between. There never seemed to be a breeze, pond and shore equally smoothed. Just stillness, as though the world had taken a soft breath, and was holding it in, and even time had leveled out, moving neither forward nor back. Then the frogs and crickets waiting for full dark announced themselves, or a breeze came up and I again heard the slosh of water against land”

Nothing Gold Can Stay is an omnibus of fourteen short stories by American author, Ron Rash. Ranging from the time of the Civil War through to the present day, the stories occur in a feast of Appalachian settings: Tennessee mountains, small town, a river between Georgia and South Carolina, a casino, a farm near the Tennessee border, a college campus, a slope in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a derelict old house, a pond and more.

Rash is a consummate storyteller who gives his reader a marvellous cast of characters: a prison trusty on a road gang, a desperate pair of drug addicts, a diver called in to recover a body, a debt-weary couple hoping for good luck, a pair of black fugitives, an Englishman with an interest in ballads, a father worried for his daughter serving in the Middle East, a husband fed up with his Florida in-laws, a mountain boy with a chance at a better life, a sixteen-year-old girl wishing for a more exciting life, a nineteenth century pastor who takes a drastic step to help a young couple, a grocery store manager prompted to recall an encounter in his teens, a night-time radio DJ and a retired veterinarian.

The stories are filled with twists, amusing plays on language and accent, black humour, irony and, of course, beautiful prose. Rash will cause the reader to think about deception, theft, loyalty, feuds, gambling, hopelessness, revenge, physical beauty and ageing. Rash’s love of the Appalachian setting is apparent in every paragraph: “He stood there in the late-afternoon light, absorbing the valley’s expansiveness after days in the mountains. The land rippled out and appeared to reach all the way to where the sun and earth merged”. Rash’s stories are pure gold.
4.5 stars
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay: Neapolitan Novels
by Elena Ferrante
A compelling read (7/22/2015)
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay is the third book in the Neapolitan Novels series by Italian author, Elena Ferrante. This installment takes up the story of Lila Cerullo and Elena Greco when they are in their mid-twenties (1969) and relates the events of their lives until they are in their early thirties (1976). Lila is living in San Giovanni a Teduccio with her young son, Gennaro, under the care of Enzo Scanno, and working at the sausage factory of Bruno Soccavo. Elena has just published her first novel, is about to marry Pietro Airota and move to Florence. Against the background of the political upheaval and violence in Italy during the seventies, Elena details significant incidents in her own life: the mixed reception to her novel, her marriage, children, her further attempts at writing, her encounters with her dear friend, Lila and with the man she has always loved, Nino Sarratore. Elena begins her narration by stating when she last saw Lila (2005) and that the purpose of her narration is to draw Lila (who has been missing since 2010) out to correct her story. The reason for this eventually becomes apparent. Elena relates what she knows of Lila’s life from what she has been told by Lila herself, and what she has heard from others. Ferrante skilfully evokes the feel of Italy and the “neighbourhood” in Naples at this turbulent time, and it is a story with virtually no joy, but plenty of honesty and grit. It is, at times, confronting and never pleasant. Ferrante’s characters are complex and well-formed and, while the reader may be able to identify with some, they are, without exception, unappealing. Elena’s final actions, uncharacteristic as they are, make for a cliff-hanger ending. The first-person narration by Elena gives this series a decidedly autobiographic feel, which is echoed in the subject of her narrator’s own novel. Not only readers new to this series will appreciate the seven-page Index of Characters and Notes on the Events of Earlier Volumes (even if only to distinguish Dino from Gino, Rino, and Nino). Readers will find themselves constantly flicking back to these seven pages to establish the relationships, political affiliations and loyalties of the many characters. This powerful novel is flawlessly translated by Ann Goldstein. Readers who enjoyed the first two books of the series will not be disappointed, and will look forward to the final book of the series. A compelling read.
My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry
by Fredrik Backman
Funny, sad and truly heartwarming (6/30/2015)
“…storytelling is the noblest profession of all. The currency there is imagination; instead of buying something with coins you buy it with a good story. Libraries aren’t known as libraries but as ‘banks’ and every fairy tale is worth a fortune”

My Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologises is the second novel by Swedish blogger, columnist and author, Fredrik Backman. As with his previous bestseller, this book is flawlessly translated by Henning Koch. Every seven-year-old girl needs a superhero of their own, and Elsa (almost eight) has one: her grandmother. Unfortunately, Granny has cancer and dies just a few days before Christmas and Elsa’s eighth birthday, leaving her rudderless. But before she left, Granny charged Elsa with a mission: a treasure hunt of sorts, involving letters of apology to be delivered to some of the many people Granny has offended over the years. Elsa may feel overwhelmed by her task, but Granny made her a knight in the Land-of-Almost-Awake, so she tries to be brave and fearless. And after a while, Elsa realises that Granny has equipped her with what she needs to face the future without her.

Backman has peopled his novel with a wonderful cast of characters, often quirky yet familiar and appealing for all their faults and imperfections. The banter between the characters is enjoyable and often laugh-out-loud funny. Backman’s plot is so cleverly devised that the reader can see events from the perspective of a seven (nearly eight) year old who believes in the fantasy world her granny has created for her, and from the point of view of the adults around her. And that fantasy world, the Land-of-Almost-Awake, is a wonderful thing in itself, with its parallels in the lives, loves and losses of the real-world characters.

Backman given his characters many words of wisdom and insightful observations: “People who have never been hunted always seem to think there’s a reason for it. ‘They wouldn’t do it without a cause, would they? You must have done something to provoke them.’ As if that was how oppression works” and “…sometimes the safest place is when you flee to what seems the most dangerous” and “When it comes to terror, reality’s got nothing on the power of imagination” are examples. He also gives Elsa some excellent retorts to adult statements: for ‘It’s complicated.’ Elsa has ‘Yes, until someone explains it to you!’ and for ‘It’s hard to help those who don’t want to help themselves’ she cleverly objects ‘Someone who wants to help himself is possibly not the one who’s most in need of other people’s help’.

Backman’s second novel is another winner, and readers will be eager to know what he can come up with next. Funny, sad and truly heartwarming.
Second Life
by S. J. Watson
Another thought-provoking page-turner. (6/13/2015)
“I realize with sudden clarity that we’re wearing masks, all of us, all the time. We’re presenting a face, a version of ourselves, to the world, to each other. We show a different face depending on who we’re with and what they expect of us. Even when we’re alone, it’s just another mask, the version of ourselves we’d prefer to be.”

Second Life is the second novel by the acclaimed author of Before I Go To Sleep, S.J.Watson. When her sister, Kate is murdered in a Paris alleyway, happily married London photographer, Julia Plummer is devastated. She feels acutely that she has let her sister down, and is determined to uncover the facts. The box of Kate’s effects she has been given by Kate’s flatmate, Anna, lead her to question what she knew about her sister: she soon finds herself risking everything she holds dear in an online relationship with someone who could be the murderer. “There’s a point where an online dalliance might become dangerous, but who can really say when it is?”

After a decidedly slow start, Watson once again gives the reader a gripping tale with a plot full of tension that twists and turns multiple times before reaching a shattering climax. His cast of characters is believable, although many have secrets and some are definitely not what they first seem. Quite unlike Watson’s protagonist in Before I Go To Sleep, this narrator will exasperate readers with her naïveté, her more-than-occasional stupidity and her self-absorbed state of mind; her selfishness, too, will leave the reader gasping.

This is a psychological thriller that graphically illustrates the dangers to be found online, where no one is necessarily what they appear or claim to be. It demonstrates how, once you dispatch it by email or social media, you lose control over any image or piece of information. Today’s technology means almost anything can be faked and makes the potential for extortion of the unwary virtually limitless. Another thought-provoking page-turner.
4.5 stars
River of Smoke: Ibis Trilogy, Part 2
by Amitav Ghosh
Another excellent read (5/30/2015)
“Opium is like the wind or the tides: it is outside my power to affect its course. A man is neither good nor evil because he sails his ship upon the wind. It is his conduct towards those around him – his friends, his family, his servants – by which he must be judged. This is the creed I live by”

River of Smoke is the second book in the Ibis Trilogy by Amitav Ghosh. The story starts with an elderly Deeti Colver in Mauritius, visiting her shrine with its pictorial record of the family history. But another visitor is asked to make his not-insignificant contribution: soon the reminiscences of Neel Rattan Halder, also familiar to readers from Sea of Poppies, take over the tale. The reader learns the fate of some of the passengers of the Ibis after the storm in the Bay of Bengal, in particular, Paulette Lambert , Ah Fatt and Neel, with occasional mentions of Zachary Reid’s fate. But the majority of this book centres on Ah Fatt’s Parsi father, Seth Bahram Modi, whose opium-laden ship, the Anahita, weathers the same storm in the Bay of Bengal, en route to Canton, and on events there as the Chinese Emperor takes steps to eradicate the scourge of the opium trade on his people.

Once again, Ghosh gives the reader a tremendous amount of information: of course, opium trade features largely, but Chinese customs, trade and diplomacy, bird’s nest soup, the transport of live plants across the globe, Asian art, painted gardens and Napoleon all get a mention. And providing all this, as he does, in the context of an engaging story set against the backdrop of events leading to the First Opium War, he makes it easy to assimilate. His characters are all well-rounded: their backstories often forming interesting little tales by themselves. His (and his ancestor’s) fascination with the migration of words is apparent in the many different language forms that appear: local patois, pidgin and slang. The number of aliases that some of the characters have is another intriguing facet of this book.

As well as straight narrative, Ghosh gives the reader facts by employing the device of a newcomer’s first impressions and explanations. The letters from Robin Chinnery to Paulette, in particular, serve this purpose, as well as being a marvellous source of humour. This book, like the first, is filled with beautiful descriptive prose and insightful observations: “Nowhere on earth, I suspect, is the importance of portals as well understood as in China. In this country, gateways are not merely entrances and exits - they are tunnels between different dimensions of existence”. Another excellent read that will have fans looking forward to the third book, Flood of Fire.
The Paperbark Shoe: A Novel
by Goldie Goldbloom
outstanding debut (5/24/2015)
“The tin roof of the Italian’s hut flashed like a semaphore at the clouds scudding over the moon, smoky white clouds, fraying at the edges, with deep purple bellies”

The Paperbark Shoe is the first novel by West Australian-born novelist and short story writer, Goldie Goldbloom. It won the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Award for Fiction in 2008, and the Literary Novel of the Year from the ForeWord Magazine (Independent Publishers) in 2011. In 1943, Italian Prisoners of War were sent out to work on West Australian farms, a welcome source of labour at a time when able-bodied men were away at war. Antonio and Gianpaolo arrive at Mr Toad’s farm on the Cemetery Road, five miles west of Wyalkatchem, dressed in their maroon-dyed uniforms.

This remote holding (“On one side of us stands the uninhabited coast, thousands of rocky miles patrolled by sharks, and on the other stands the vast, appalling desert of the great red centre, studded with the bones of animals and men that have strayed there and melted into the earth”) is home to Gin Toad, albino, prize-winning pianist, mother of three and two months pregnant; and Toadie, known for his collection of women’s corsets. Both misfits in society, together for reasons that never included love.

When Antonio flatters Gin with attention and compliments, her attention is drawn to Toadie’s shortcomings: “I can hear him now, his voice so like the croaking of a frog in a bucket, his deep sniffs punctuating each sentence”. The nature of their marriage irritates her more than ever: “He never touched me in the daytime, in the light, that man who ran his hands so tenderly over the horses, who touched his nose to their velvet muzzles and murmured to them as he gazed into their eyes. He had it in him, a capacity for love. But he hid it from me”

Goldbloom’s plot goes where expected, but with a twist. Her characters are a breed apart: many are quirky, all are in some way flawed, and while this can be endearing, the only truly appealing character in this tale is young Alfie. All the rest are selfish, some to an appalling degree. Her descriptive prose is beautiful and she certainly captures the feel of the West Australian desert and the small town attitudes of the 1940s. An outstanding debut.
Academy Street
by Mary Costello
A remarkable debut novel. (5/12/2015)
“Another vocation, then, reading, akin, even, to falling in love, she thought, stirring, as it did, the kind of emotions and extreme feelings she desired, feelings of innocence and longing that returned her to those vaguely perfect states she had experienced as a child.”
Academy Street is the first novel by Irish author, Mary Costello. It chronicles the life of Teresa Lohan, from her youth in rural Ireland in the 1940s through her time in New York and her return to Ireland in her sixties. Tess is seemingly unremarkable, both as a child and an adult: a shy, sensitive child; a woman with an essential loneliness (“It seemed at times that she was marooned on an island, a moat of water, wide and black, separating her from all human love.”); a mother who feels she could have done better. Nonetheless, Costello’s exquisite prose conveys this life with such emotion, such care, that the reader cannot help but be moved. Costello paints her character so vividly, so completely, that the reader can identify with Tess, her feelings (“…the mark of all anxiety: the acute awareness of the endless possibilities that can simultaneously imperil and enhance us, and all that might be lost or gained.”), her ideas (“It Ireland seemed to her now to be a place without dreams, or where dreaming was prohibited. Here, life could be lived at a higher, truer pitch. Though her own was a timid life, there was, since Theo’s birth, a yearning towards motion and spirit and vitality.”), her reactions (“She thought of the water that had lain quietly calm, each tiny drop, each molecule, restful, suddenly wrenched, catapulted through a metal rotary, tossed back out into the turbulent current, reeling, confounded, changed.”). In both style and content, this novel is reminiscent of Sebastian Barry’s work, in particular, “On Canaan’s Side”. A remarkable debut novel.
Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen
by Mary Norris
informative, witty and very funny (4/22/2015)
“What is a semicolon, anyway?” Is it half a colon? Is it a period on top of a comma? Or an apostrophe that has been knocked down and pinned by a period?”

Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen is the first book by Mary Norris, who has been on the staff of The New Yorker for some 35 years, and a Page OK’er for twenty of those. She has been referred to by some as a prose goddess, or a comma queen, and indeed, a whole chapter of this book is devoted to comma usage, and cleverly titled “Comma, comma, comma, comma, chameleon”.

This is a book that seems to be a mix of memoir, opinion piece, language textbook and history book. Norris describes the New Yorker’s Style rules (“It did sometimes feel as if we belonged to some strange cloistered order, the Sisters of the Holy Humility of Hyphens”) and some of its more eccentric personalities. This is a book packed with facts, but Norris conveys them in a manner that makes them easy to assimilate, and often treats the reader to laugh-out-loud examples such as those on the serial comma debate. And who knew there were such things as Dictionary Wars, an Apostrophe Eradication Policy (USA), an Apostrophe Protection Society (England) and a Pencil Sharpener Museum?

As well as demonstrating just why spelling, grammar and punctuation DO matter, Norris explains just what a copy-editor does, and the risks of being one (“When I finally made it to the copydesk, it was a long time before I could once again read for pleasure. I spontaneously copy-edited everything I laid eyes on”), and provides a wealth of handy hints about pronouns, hyphens, expletives (deleted and not), restrictive clauses, dashes, colons and semicolons and copulative verbs. She backs up her advice with plenty of examples, extensive references and a comprehensive index. And, of course, her punctuation is absolutely flawless!

Norris offers plenty of succinct opinions: On autocorrect: “I type “adverbial” and it comes out “adrenal,” which is like a knife thrust to my adverbial gland”. On compound words: “I was learning that the dictionary is a wonderful thing, but you can’t let it push you around, especially where compound words are concerned. Also that a hyphen is not a moral issue”. And on gender: “The idea that gender in language is decorative, a way of dressing up words, can be applied to the human body: things that identify us as male or female—breasts, hips, bulges—are decorative as well as essential to the survival of the species. Lipstick and high heels are inflections, tokens of the feminine: lures, sex apps. Those extra letters dangling at the ends of words are the genitalia of grammar”


She tells us: “I would get lost in throngs of adjectives”. And when her friend remarks “There is no pleasure so acute as that of a well-placed semicolon”, Mary concludes that there must therefore be “no displeasure so obtuse as that of an ill-placed semicolon”. The Text Publishing edition has a cover designed by W.H.Chong with a very clever constructed crown for the Comma Queen. This book is informative, witty and very funny: a must for anyone who cares about what they write. 4.5 stars
Landline
by Rainbow Rowell
a real pleasure to read (4/22/2015)
Landline is the fourth novel by American author, Rainbow Rowell. L.A. TV comedy writer Georgie McCool has been married to Neal Grafton for fifteen years and has two sweet and adorable daughters, Alice and Noomi. But Georgie knows her marriage is broken. They still love each other, but Neal’s not happy, so how can she be? She’s not sure exactly when it broke, but when Neal takes Alice and Noomi home to his parents in Omaha for Christmas, while Georgie stays behind to work, she wonders if it’s the final straw. Especially when Neal doesn’t answer his cell phone.

With her writing going none too well, lonely, concerned about her marriage and with her own cell phone failing, Georgie ends up at her Mom’s place, in her old bedroom, using the big yellow rotary dial phone to ring the landline in Omaha. And then something strange happens. Something that might just give Georgie a change to fix what’s broken…..

As Georgie worries about her relationship, Rowell has her thinking back to how it all started, thus slowly revealing what was so right about Georgie and Neal, and what went wrong later. Rowell’s characters are appealing despite their flaws: the reader may want to shake a bit of sense into Georgie, but luckily she finds it on her own before it is too late. Neal sounds like a husband many women would covet, and Georgie’s family are amusingly eccentric. This novel is moving and uplifting, a real pleasure to read. 4.5 stars
Unnatural Habits: A Phryne Fisher Mystery (Phryne Fisher Mysteries)
by Kerry Greenwood
excellent novel (4/22/2015)
Unnatural Habits is the nineteenth book in the popular Phryne Fisher series by Australian author, Kerry Greenwood. A chance encounter with a young female reporter for The Daily Truth in a laneway leads Phryne Fisher to investigate the disappearance of three pregnant girls and said reporter. Margaret Kettle, better known as Polly, is determined to make her name as a serious journalist and steals a colleague’s story on White Slavery. But her enquiries into the fate of three very pregnant teenagers last seen at a pious widow’s nursing home mark the last sighting of the enthusiastic if somewhat careless reporter.

Her questions in a variety of places have ruffled some feathers, but whose? Someone associated with the Convent of the Good Shepherd and their workhouse-like Magdalen Laundry business? The owners of local brothels or exclusive Gentlemen’s Clubs? Or does her disgruntled colleague have a hand in her disappearance? What does the employment agency, Jobs For All, have to do with it? And just who is going around performing involuntary vasectomies on deserving males?

In this instalment, Phryne makes full use of her daughters (on vacation from school), of Dot, of her new employee, Tink and of her taxi drivers, Bert and Cec. Her minions (as she repeatedly refers to them in this instalment) are put to work on a secret code and other researches as well as taking active parts in the interrogation of witnesses. Phryne adopts an assortment of disguises: a blonde actress, a pregnant girl and a nun, as required by the different strands of the investigation. As well as white slavery, eugenics, virginity tests, kidnapping, slave labour and a female-run fruit-growing collective all feature. With this excellent novel, Greenwood once again proves herself a mistress of historical crime fiction.
A Man Called Ove
by Fredrik Backman
a stunning debut: moving, uplifting and very funny. (4/4/2015)
A Man Called Ove is the first novel by Swedish blogger and columnist, Fredrik Backman. At fifty-nine, Ove has definite ideas on how things should be done, on the best car to drive (obviously a Saab), and no patience for those who cannot follow the rules. The son of a hard-working, poor but principled man, Ove, too is hard-working and sticks rigidly to his principles. But now, six months since the death of his beloved wife, Sonja, he is “not dead, but not really living”, and he is no longer hard-working: he has been retrenched. His life without any purpose whatsoever, he matter-of-factly sets out to commit suicide.

His meticulous plans are derailed, time and again: inferior-quality rope; the Cat Annoyance; the Pregnant Foreign Woman who needs a ladder, a lift, a lesson; radiators that need to be properly bled; a bicycle that needs repair; a fainting Suit needing rescue from certain death; a gay man in need of accommodation. Time and again, he finds himself at Sonja’s grave, apologising once more for failing to join her as promised.

The narrative alternates between a three-week period in the present day, and Ove’s life from the age of seven, when his mother died. With his cranky main character, Backman gives the reader social commentary with plenty of chuckles, snickers and laugh-out-loud moments: “In the parking area, Ove sees that imbecile Anders reversing his Audi out of his garage. It has those new, wave-shaped headlights, Ove notes, presumably designed so that no one at night will be able to avoid the insight that here comes a car driven by an utter shit” and “’I almost smashed into that car!’ pants Parvaneh. Ove peers over the edge of the bonnet. And then, suddenly, a sort of calm comes over his face. He turns and nods at her, very matter-of-fact. ‘Doesn’t matter. It’s a Volvo’” exemplify his opinion about non-Saab vehicles. His insults are similarly hilarious: “You shouldn’t even be allowed to rewind a cassette”, he tells The Lanky One.

But Backman gives his characters plenty of words of wisdom too: “Men are what they are because of what they do. Not what they say” and “We can busy ourselves with living or with dying, Ove. We have to move on” are two examples. There is much humour in this novel, some of it quite black, but there are also moments that will produce a lump in the throat and even tears. Flawlessly translated from Swedish by Henning Koch, this “requested-by-readers” novel is a stunning debut: moving, uplifting and very funny.
Legend Of A Suicide
by David Vann
An amazing debut. (3/24/2015)
“Watching the dark shadow moving before him, it seemed as this were what he had felt for a long time, that his father was something insubstantial before him and that if he were to look away for an instant or forget or not follow fast enough and will him to be there, he might vanish, as if it were only Roy’s will that kept him there”

Legend of a Suicide is the first book by prize-winning American author, David Vann. It consists of five short stories and a novella. The stories are all connected and describe the relationship of young Roy Fenn with his father Jim, a failed dentist and unsuccessful fisherman who commits suicide when Roy is thirteen. Vann writes from a position of authority, having experienced exactly that with his own father.

While this dark subject forms the centre of the tales, Vann often surrounds it with equally dark humour as he describes the (frequently absurd) incidents of their lives. All this is contained within Vann’s luminous prose: “There had been rain overnight. I remember how strong the dove grass smelled, bitter in my nostrils and throat. I looked up suddenly from the bright ground and everything pulled together, all the strands of cloud and blue air, as if there were a huge drain in the center of the sky that sucked it all up”

The short stories are narrated in the first person by Roy; the novella (Sukkwan Island) is narrated in the third person from the point of view of Roy and Jim, and describe a fateful homestead stay on a remote Alaskan island. Again, some evocative descriptive prose is used: “They watched the sun getting lower. It was so slow they couldn’t see it dropping, but they could see the light changing on the water and on the trees, the shadow behind every leaf and ripple in the sideways light making the world three-dimensional, as if they were seeing trees through a view-finder” is an example.

Vann’s portrayal of the mentally ill father, his rationalisations and choices, is very realistic. Young Roy’s thought processes have a similarly authentic feel. This is a moving, sometimes funny, sometimes shocking tale with a clever twist. An amazing debut.
The Three Incestuous Sisters: An Illustrated Novel
by Audrey Niffenegger
Different. (3/17/2015)
The Three Incestuous Sisters is the second “visual novel” by American author and artist, Audrey Niffenegger. The original books were hand printed: a limited edition of ten copies. The drawings are aquatints, featuring three sisters, Clothilde, Ophile and Bettine, who live by the sea. They all look quite similar but conveniently have different coloured hair. Two of them fall in love with the same man and jealousy leads to nasty consequences. The story is a little bizarre, but Niffenegger explains it needs to be imagined as a silent film made from Japanese prints, a melodrama of sibling rivalry. The text is certainly minimal, often as little as one or two words on the page opposite the prints.

In her afterword, Niffenegger explains the complicated process involved in the hand printing. The prints, in subdued colours (except for the sisters’ hair), are quite individual, and Niffenegger’s style is distinctive. It is easy to see from her later works (The Night Book Mobile and Raven Girl) that both the quality of the art and the storytelling have improved since the earlier books. Dedicated Niffenegger fans may wish to own a copy; borrowing from the library is recommended for those who are merely “interested”. Different.
The Well
by Catherine Chanter
This thought-provoking novel is a brilliant debut. (3/10/2015)
“Elsewhere, people were squeezing the last six months into small spaces: bicycles onto the backs of campervans, mattresses onto the roofs of cars, sleeping bags into recycled supermarket carriers, saucepans stacked one into another like Russian dolls, inflatable water carriers deflated. Set to music it would have been a grand chorus scene in an opera, with all the crowd and the minor parts working in unison and it seemed as though any minute they would all turn to face front and burst into song for their curtain call.”

The Well is the first novel by British short story writer and poet, Catherine Chanter. Ruth Ardingly is returned, under house arrest, to The Well, the lush rural property she and her husband, Mark have owned for over a year. The property is securely fenced, Ruth wears an ankle bracelet monitor and is guarded by three soldiers enforcing the Drought Emergency Regulations Act. How has their escape from the City (and the cloud of suspicion that hung over Mark) in the guise of a tree change, gone so horribly wrong?

As Ruth endures the boredom of her sentence, she thinks back on how it all started: the purchase, the rain that favours their idyll, the satisfaction of working towards self-sufficiency and the delight in presence of their grandson, Lucien. Ruth shares some of the memories with a young guard and with the priest who visits her. She tells of the jealousy and suspicion of neighbours, and the arrival of the Sisters of the Rose of Jericho with their charismatic leader, Sister Amelia.

Against the background of a severely water-restricted England, Chanter examines how relationships can break down under the effect of suspicion and increasingly differing priorities, the influence of religious cults and the tragic consequences that can ensue. She gives the reader a glimpse of online religion and the mass hysteria it can generate. This is a gripping drama that will have the reader wondering about the true fate of the young victim, and Ruth’s part in it, until the final pages.

Chanter’s characters are both credible and complex. Her descriptive prose is wonderfully evocative: “.. the thought of her is dries my mouth with hope and fear and thoughts, wild and screeching as crows at dusk, scattering into the darkness” and “Some, I guess, came simply to dip their toe in the rippling pond of drama in the otherwise flat surface of their lives” are just two examples. This thought-provoking novel is a brilliant debut.
Calling Me Home
by Julie Kibler
An impressive debut. (3/9/2015)
Calling Me Home is the first novel by American author, Julie Kibler. When eighty-nine-year-old Miss Isabelle asks her black hairdresser, Dorrie to drive her from Texas to Ohio, Dorrie realises it must be for a very good reason. Single mother of a teenaged boy and girl, Dorrie welcomes the break from her busy life and the new man on the scene who seems too good to be true. As they head toward Cincinnati, and what Dorrie gathers to be a funeral, Miss Isabelle shares memories of her life as a young woman in a very white Kentucky community. A life with a forceful mother for whom appearance was everything, a liberal-minded father too cautious to take a public stand, a pair of arrogant, racist brothers and black servants who were more family to Isabelle than her own kin. She also reveals her first love, her one true love.

The narrative is alternates between two time periods: the events of 1940s are told by Miss Isabelle; the present day happenings are related by Dorrie, touching on the road trip and the dramas of her own family life as well as forming a break from Miss Isabelle’s story and reflecting on that. Kibler’s novel deals with racial discrimination, segregation and intermarriage, as well as sexual discrimination. Her characters are multi-faceted and appealing and her representation of 1940’s Ohio feels authentic. Often funny, and at times, heartbreaking, this is a heart-warming story with a surprise twist near the end. An impressive debut.
Elizabeth Is Missing
by Emma Healey
a brilliant debut novel (2/28/2015)
“…I remember the town being almost too bright to look at when I was a girl. I remember the deep blue of the sky and the dark green of the pines cutting through it, the bright red of the local brick houses and the orange carpet of pine needles under our feet. Nowadays – though I’m sure the sky is still occasionally blue and most houses are still there, and the trees still drop their needles – nowadays, the colours seem faded, as if I live in an old photograph.”

Elizabeth Is Missing is the first novel by British author, Emma Healey. Eighty-two-year-old Maud Horsham is demented. She lives in her own home, has a carer coming daily to help out, and gets regular visits from her daughter Helen. And she is fairly certain that her best friend, Elizabeth is missing. Elizabeth is not at home (Maud has checked) and she feels that Elizabeth’s unfriendly son, Peter Markham is sure to be behind it. Maud finds it frustrating how unconcerned both Helen and the Police are about her disappearance.

While she still has lucid moments, Maud’s mental state ensures that generally her narrative of the present-day is unreliable. But the people and things that fill her day remind her of a time, almost seventy years ago, when she was fourteen and her older, married sister, Susan went missing. After dinner with her family, Sukey disappeared almost without a trace. Did she just run off, as many people just after the war did? Or did her jealous husband, Frank, or the family’s lodger, Doug, have something to do with it? Or was she a victim of the Grosvenor Hotel murderer? Maud’s memories of this time are crystal clear.

While this is a mystery that builds quite gradually, and it is perhaps not the mystery that the reader first expects (Elizabeth’s location is no real surprise), patience is rewarded as the pieces fall into place. Healey expertly segues present triggers into memories of the past, and despite her youth, shows an amazing insight into the world of the elderly and the demented. As anyone with a demented relative or friend will agree, there are times when the best reaction is to laugh, the alternative being to cry, and Healey portrays these moments with consummate ease. This is not a book for everyone: some readers may find it strikes a little too close to home. Perceptive, blackly funny and often frighteningly realistic, this is a brilliant debut novel.
Aquarium
by David Vann
Another excellent offering from David Vann. (2/25/2015)
“Like a leaf giving birth to stars………..Body of small green leaves, veined, very thin, its fins painted in light cast from elsewhere, but from his eye out his long snout, an eruption of galaxies without foreign source, born in the fish itself. An opening in the small fabric of the world, a place to fall into endlessly.”

Aquarium is the fifth full length novel by American author, David Vann. It is set in 1994 and narrated by twelve-year-old Caitlin Thompson. Caitlin’s world revolves around three important elements: her hardworking single mother, Sheri; her best friend at school, Indian émigré Shalini Anand; and her afternoon visits to the Seattle Aquarium. The year is drawing to a close, class involves making a paper-mache Divali Reindeer and Sheri has finally met a decent man, Steve, when Caitlin encounters an old man at the Aquarium, an old man who seems as fascinated by the fish as she is. And who seems very interested in her life.

Vann gives the reader a very diverse cast of characters: the effervescent Shalini; the admirably balanced Steve; the damaged and resentful Sheri; the earnestly repentant Bob. Of course, Caitlin, with her optimism, her love and her capacity for compassion, outshines them all. Their interactions are sometimes funny, sometimes decidedly uncomfortable, sometimes shockingly raw, but fans of Vann’s work will know not to expect a novel filled with sweetness and light. His work has been described as confronting. The plot takes a few unexpected turns before arriving at a startling climax.

While readers may find the lack of quotation marks for speech irritating, this is more than compensated for by the gorgeous descriptive passages, especially, but not only, those about fish. “You’re in trouble, Shalini whispered in my ear, leaning close. All the little hairs stood up on my neck and I had goose bumps. Shalini could make me shiver, as if my entire body were a bell that had just been struck” Another excellent offering from David Vann.
4.5 stars
The Buried Giant
by Kazuo Ishiguro
Quite unexpected. (2/3/2015)
“…for if we’re mortal let us at least shine handsomely in God’s eyes while we walk this earth!”

The Buried Giant is the seventh novel by award-winning Japanese author, Kazuo Ishiguro. Set in post-Arthurian Britain, it follows the journey of a Briton couple, Axl and Beatrice, as they travel some distance to a village where their son, whom they have not seen for quite some years, now waits for them. Along the way, they are drawn into dramas and conflicts involving the people they encounter. The couple are convinced the land is plagued by a mist of forgetfulness, and determined to learn the cause, trusting their love will withstand any memories that are revealed.

Having already met a ferryman and a resentful widow, they are eventually accompanied by a Saxon warrior, a boy with a strange wound and an Arthurian knight with his faithful steed. At a monastery they seek and find wisdom and healing, but are also met with betrayal, monsters, and soldiers. And while one monk asserts “…we must uncover what’s hidden and face the past”, they have difficulty discerning truths from the half-truths and lies they are told. And if they achieve their goal and clear the mist? “Who knows what will come when quick-tongued men make ancient grievances rhyme with fresh desire for land and conquest?”

Ishiguro fills his tale with creatures, characters, objects and happenings from myth and legend: a she-dragon, pixies, a ferry crossing, ogres, instruments of torture, secret tunnels and sword battles. He touches on hate and tolerance, enmity and allegiance, honour and duty, love, loyalty and revenge, war and peace. An Arthurian form of censorship also features. Ishiguro treats the reader to some beautiful prose, but readers of his earlier work will remark on how different this one is. Quite unexpected.

With thanks to The Reading Room and Allen and Unwin for this copy to read and review.

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