Reviews by Cloggie Downunder

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The Zahir: A Novel of Obsession
by Paulo Coelho
dull (3/6/2016)
The Zahir is the sixth stand-alone book by Brazil-born author, Paulo Coelho. It is translated from Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa. Esther, a journalist and the wife of a best-selling author disappears from their home in Paris. Once the police release him from custody, dismissing the idea that he may have been responsible, he begins to wonder what has happened. He is soon convinced that she left him voluntarily, despite her occasionally dangerous job as a war correspondent. For two years, he remains obsessed about learning the reason she left him.

The first thing the narrator does is find himself a girlfriend. Then, suitably catered for sexually, he laments his inability to understand why his wife left him. As the narrator (eventually, after more than two years) sets about looking for her, the tale is filled with waffle about finding oneself, pure divine energy, spiritual journey, and energy of love flowing around the world. Much of it seems to be a vehicle for expressing the author’s opinion about topics like wealth, sex and fidelity, marriage, and power.

From the narrator’s history it would seem that this story is largely autobiographical. The author must have quite some charisma in person, because on paper his attitude and arrogance are unappealing. The dialogue is wooden (although perhaps this is a function of the translation); the prose is dull; much of the story feels contrived. This book might appeal to men of a Latin background who fancy themselves on a spiritual journey.
The Quality of Silence
by Rosamund Lupton
A brilliant read (2/27/2016)
“He knew now that a landslide a hundred feet wide was moving towards the ice road, frozen soil and rocks and shrunken trees stealing closer by a few centimetres a day, gaining speed and destroying anything in their way; as if the land itself, like the cold, was not just passively hostile but actively aggressive”

The Quality of Silence is the third novel by bestselling British author, Rosamund Lupton. When Yasmin Alfredson and her ten-and-a-half year-old daughter, Ruby, arrive at Fairbanks, Alaska, they expect that husband and father, Matthew there to meet them. Instead, a police officer is telling Yasmin that the remote village where Matthew was photographing wildlife, Anaktue has been burned to the ground with all lives lost. And the finding of Matthew’s wedding ring seems to confirm that he is one of the victims.

But Yasmin remains unconvinced; she is steadfast in her belief that her husband is still alive, alone in the wilderness, and is determined to find him before the predicted storm hits. With no safe place to leave Ruby, Yasmin is obliged to bring her profoundly deaf daughter along. No available flights mean that road transport is the only option, and before long, events see Yasmin driving a loaded eighteen-wheeler in the Arctic dark of November on an ice road. And someone seems to be following them.

Lupton’s plot is original, while her characters have depth and appeal; she states in the acknowledgements that she wanted her heroine to be courageous and imaginative, and Ruby certainly is that, with her deafness adding a unique perspective. Lupton conveys the Arctic cold and dark with consummate ease. The reader is treated to some beautiful descriptive prose.

This is a real page-turner of a book with a nail-biting climax (or two), twists and red herrings to keep it all interesting, and a strong environmental message to convey. Lupton’s extensive research into Arctic life, animals and people, into fracking, and into deafness (as well as her personal experience on this subject) is apparent on every page. Readers will find themselves contemplating society’s attitude to disabilities like deafness, as well as the pros and cons of fracking.

If the reader can sufficiently suspend disbelief about a relatively inexperienced English driver successfully operating an American eighteen-wheeler on an ice road in the dark, then this is a brilliant read.
After the Fire, a Still Small Voice
by Evie Wyld
A stunning debut (2/21/2016)
“Eucalyptus blanketed the room. He had the feeling that the trees were peering in through the windows, that they had uprooted and crept over to take a peek. The leaves of the banana tree on the roof were a gentle tap tap tap let me in”

After the Fire, a Still Small Voice is the first novel by prize-winning Australian author, Evie Wyld. A story that spans three generations, it is told from the perspective of Frank, who, in the present day, is fleeing behaviour he is ashamed of; and of Leon, decades earlier, forced to follow in his father’s footsteps.

Frank arrives at Mulaburry, determined that life in his grandparents’ hut in the cane-fields will help him forget Lucy, the woman he mistreated. “The clearing was smaller than he remembered, like the cane had slunk closer to the pale wooden box hut. The banana tree stooped low over a corrugated roof”.

Having watched the broken remains of his father, once a master baker, return from the Korean War, Leon finds himself plucked from his own baking career to land in the jungles of Vietnam.

Wyld alternates the narratives so that the significant events of each man’s life are gradually revealed, and the reader learns how one man’s history impacts on that of the other. There are common elements to each narrative, echoes that draw the stories together: the wedding-cake figurines, the baker’s fare, the cane-fields hut.

Wyld’s characters are real and flawed, characters for whom the reader can readily hope, be disappointed in and exult in minor triumphs. Their moods are deftly evoked: “With effort he stood up, ignored the squealed noises of the teacher, the weird electric sound of laughter, saw only that Amy Blackwell’s blue eyes watched him as he walked out of the classroom, away from the school, heavy enough that he might sink into the ground and suffocate, or else fall on the pavement and shatter into splinters”

Wyld touches on some topical and age-old issues: domestic violence; child abduction; the devastating effect of war on the combatants’ psyche; the lack of support for Vietnam Veterans; racial discrimination. Wyld has a talent for descriptive prose and conveys her settings with consummate ease: the humidity of the Vietnamese jungle, the sounds of the Queensland cane-field, the langour of a Sydney Christmas, all are vividly heard, seen and felt. A stunning debut.
The Life of Elves
by Muriel Barbery
Something quite different from Muriel Barbery. (2/21/2016)
“…she looked up at him with her eyes as blue as the torrents from the glacier, with a gaze in which the angels of mystery sang. And life flowed down the slopes of the Sasso with the slowness and intensity of those places where everything requires effort but also takes its time, in the current of a bygone dream where humankind knew languor interwoven with the bitterness of the world”

The Life of Elves is the third novel by prize-winning French novelist and professor of philosophy, Muriel Barbery. Two orphan girls grow up, unaware, initially, of each other, and of the integral role they will play in the battle of good versus evil.

Clara is raised in a secluded Italian mountain village by a priest and his ageing housekeeper until her prodigious musical talent sees her taken to study with the Maestro in Rome.

Maria grows up in a remote French farming village, surrounded by loving parents, elderly aunts and cousins. Not until a major battle looms do they begin to realise how important they are to the future of humankind.

Readers familiar with The Gourmet (aka Gourmet Rhapsody) and The Elegance of the Hedgehog should be aware that this book is a major departure in style from Barbery’s earlier works.

This book, too, has some beautiful descriptive prose, but, whereas her earlier novels abound with quirky characters, witty dialogue and gems of wisdom, this one is more plot-driven and involves the realm of fantasy (perhaps obvious from the title).

Prose like “…while the people of this land might be sculpted into jagged rock by wind and snow, they are also fashioned by the poetry of their landscape, which makes shepherds compose rhymes in the icy fog of the high pastures, and storms give birth to hamlets that dangle from the web of the sky” is de riguer for this story.

Major themes of this book include the importance of the connection between humankind and the Earth, nature, and the arts. Flawlessly translated into English by Alison Anderson, the book also provides a very useful index of characters at the beginning. Readers who enjoy this novel will be pleased to know that Barbery is working on a sequel. Something quite different from Muriel Barbery.
A Cure for Suicide
by Jesse Ball
An interesting read (2/16/2016)
“Time passed. After some number of days, one particular day arrived, and in the midst of that day, it was midday. The sun was shining so brightly overhead it seemed that every blade of grass could be made out, each from the others. It was a sort of harmony – nothing could be hidden, nothing at all beneath the sky”.

A Cure For Suicide is the fifth novel by prize-winning American author, Jesse Ball. It begins with a nameless man (the claimant) who is living in a house in a village (Gentlest Village) where he is taught the basic activities of daily living by a doctor/guide (the examiner). The claimant is told he almost died, and is now being healed. The Process of Villages is the treatment he will undergo, the cure for suicide. Set somewhere far into the future, or in a parallel universe, Ball’s world, and certainly many of the character names, have a slightly Scandinavian feel to it (perhaps not surprising, given his Icelandic wife).

If the reader can get past the first (somewhat bizarre) two thirds of the novel, then the discussion between the petitioner and the interlocutor forms an explanation of how the nameless man came to be going through the Process of Villages. While the lack of quotation marks for speech can be irritating, it is generally not a barrier to understanding who is speaking, except during the discussion with the interlocutor, when conversations reported at third or fourth remove create quite complicated sentences.

Ball’s style is simple and stark, but his descriptive prose is, nonetheless, evocative: “She sat at a desk with her back to him, writing long into the night as she always did. The light from the fixture in that room was shabby. It fell very bitterly over the room, and some of the light from a lamp in the street contested with it. The effect was: as she sat at her desk she looked like a figure in a woodcut. And she sat as still” and “The manager, a yellowed, rancid sort of man, the type who seldom clip his nails, who believes they need be clipped less often than you and I do….”are two examples.

Ball describes a world where depression and heartbreak appear to be eliminated by amnesiac treatments: what led to the nameless man’s therapy is a moving tale, and perhaps Ball is leading the reader to consider the ethics of medicalising grief. The conclusion will leave the reader wondering about the sincerity (or otherwise) of a key character. An interesting read. 3.5 stars
Be Frank With Me
by Julia Claiborne Johnson
poignant, thought-provoking and, above all, very funny (2/16/2016)
“’Frank will be okay, Alice,’ Mr. Vargas said. ‘He’s an odd duck, but brilliant children often are. It may take him a while, but someday he’ll figure out how to live in the world of ordinary mortals.’”

Be Frank With Me is the first novel by American author, Julia Claiborne Johnson. When reclusive author, M.M.Banning (aka Mimi Gillespie) contacts Isaac Vargas, her New York publisher, to ask for help with a new book, he is prepared to bend over backwards to assist. Years ago, her first (and only) book was such a popular bestseller that she went into hiding in California; now, a drastic change in financial circumstances means Mimi needs a publishing success.

Which is why accountancy graduate, Alice Whitely finds herself on Mimi’s Bel Air doorstep, her brief being to do whatever is necessary to allow Mimi to finish her book. When she meets nine-year-old Frank, she is at once fascinated, curious and, quite soon, wondering just what she has let herself in for. Because Frank is different: his encyclopaedic knowledge of the film industry and his movie-character wardrobe ensure that he stands apart, wherever he goes.

Johnson gives her reader a cast of characters who, for all their flaws, are truly appealing: despite his quirks (or perhaps because of them), Frank is instantly likeable; Mimi is prickly and rude, but her obvious love for Frank overrides that in spades; Alice misses the point occasionally, but her heart is in the right place, as is Xander’s, even if reliability is not his forte.

While there are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, there are also quite a few to choke the reader up, and Johnson explores some age-old issues: how overwhelming guilt can affect the one who bears it; and why society sets such a high value on conformity. And while the plot involves broken glass, explosions and fire, as well as a bit of detective work, there is a heart-warming happy ending. This is a stunning debut novel: poignant, thought-provoking and, above all, very funny.
The Temporary Gentleman
by Sebastian Barry
beautiful, sad, brilliant (2/8/2016)
“For myself, I could only wonder at her - was this a sort of evil borrowed from alcohol? I didn’t believe that in herself, in her heart and soul, she was a vicious woman. How is it that for some people drinking is a short-term loan on the spirit, but for others a heavy mortgage on the soul? How is it many a drinker becomes gay and light-hearted, but some so darkly morose and rescinded, filleted of every scrap of happiness, that they might beat their child in the snow?”

The Temporary Gentleman is the thirteenth novel by award-winning Irish author, Sebastian Barry, and his fifth work about the McNulty Family. Now in his mid-fifties, civil engineer and former UN observer, Jack McNulty sits in his rented house in Accra, Ghana, writing about his life in an old minute-book of the now-defunct Gold Coast Engineering and Bridge-Building Company, because “there is a lot to be said for writing things down. The fog gets pushed away, and the truth or some semblance of it stands stark and naked, not always a comfortable matter, no”

Now redundant in Ghana, Jack feels he should go back to Sligo, to what remains of his family, whose story he tells, interspersed with snippets of his life in Accra. While he includes his work in bomb disposal, engineering and as a diplomat, and his extended family, the overwhelming bulk of his account concerns the love of his life, the beautiful and popular Mai Kirwan, whom he met when studying engineering at college: “The waterfall of her black hair, the hat like a boat trying to weather it, her eyes dark in the dark carriage, not so much absent as deep, deep as a well, with the water a far coin below of brightness and blackness”

Readers familiar with Barry’s work will appreciate the mention of many characters recognisable from his other works about this family, although some have different names. A bit of background knowledge of the Troubles in Ireland is also helpful, as much of the novel is set against this background. As Jack finally admits his responsibility for certain heart-breaking events of his past, Barry adds another layer to the engrossing McNulty history.

Barry again succinctly comments about the devastating effect that the change of ruling party can have on those whose loyalties were seen to be with the “other” side: “What strange men were about the earth, after this half century of wars. Men who once were true, and their very trueness turned into betrayal, as the pages of history turn in the wind. Men who were vicious and oftentimes ruthless, turned into heroes and patriots. And a hundred shades and mixtures of both”

Readers are once again treated to the wonderful descriptive prose of which Barry is a master: “We could see the coast of Africa lying out along a minutely fidgeting shoreline. The only illuminations were the merry lights of the ship, and the sombre philosophical lights of God above. Otherwise the land ahead was favoured only by darkness, a confident brushstroke of rich, black ink” and “A lark, a single bird with her dowdy plumage, burst up from her cup of sand just in front of me and like a needle flashing in my mother’s hand of old made a long stitch between earth and heaven, with a joyousness that rent my heart” are just two examples. Both beautiful and sad, this is another brilliant read from Sebastian Barry.
Cure: A Journey into the Science of Mind Over Body
by Jo Marchant
An absolutely fascinating read. (2/1/2016)
“…in many situations, we have the capacity to influence our own health, by harnessing the power of the (conscious and unconscious) mind”

Cure: A Journey into the Science of Mind Over Body is the third book by British scientist, science journalist and editor, Jo Marchant. In it, she looks at many different, often “alternative” therapies and examines the claims they make in a rational and thoughtful manner. Many of the results are not just unexpected, but frequently quite astounding. If Text had offered a “be surprised or your money back” guarantee on this one, it would have been a safe bet for them.

Quoting actual trials and real patients, Marchant reveals some stunning facts about placebos, looks at how to train the immune system, fighting fatigue, hypnotherapy for a myriad of ailments, and pain therapy of quite a different nature (will some future pain relief trials be funded by gaming software developers?). Marchant looks at biofeedback, mindfulness, talk therapy, reiki and prayer, and reports amazing results in conditions as diverse as autism, IBS, spinal surgery, ageing, HIV, childbirth third degree burns, autoimmune disease, Parkinson’s and transplant rejection.

She speculates on a different approach to aged care: “What if reshaped care for the elderly not around managing their decline, but harvesting their abilities? We could use that ageing brain to give back to a society that’s in great need…..We don’t know what the message does to a person when they are told ageing is a time of deterioration. If we reframe it, and say ageing is a time to give back to others, it might actually help them age better”

She concludes that “…the vast majority of health problems we face aren’t physical or psychological – they are both”. She also tells us “At the heart of almost all the pathways I’ve learned about is one guiding principle: if we feel safe, cared for and in control – in a critical moment during injury or disease, or generally throughout our lives – we do better. We feel less pain, less fatigue, less sickness. Our immune system works with us instead of against us. Our bodies ease off on emergency defences and can focus on repair and growth”.

All the information that Marchant conveys may be readily available, but her talent, no doubt a product of her career in both science and journalism, is to compile and present it in an easily understandable form for readers without scientific expertise. Readers will find themselves looking at how they can apply these discoveries to their own lives and the lives of those they care about, not just for treatment of illness, but for ways to improve their quality of life now and in the future. An absolutely fascinating read.
The High Mountains of Portugal
by Yann Martel
An utterly enchanting read. (1/26/2016)
“In the course of one week – Gaspar died on Monday, Dora on Thursday, his father on Sunday – his heart became undone like a bursting cocoon. Emerging from it came no butterfly but a grey moth that settled on the wall of his soul and stirred no farther”

The High Mountains of Portugal is the fourth novel by award-winning Spanish-born Canadian author, Yann Martel. In late 1904, Tomas Lobo, an assistant curator at Lisbon’s Museum of Ancient Art, sets off to the High Mountains of Portugal in search of a seventeenth century artifact that he believes to be profoundly important.

At the start of 1939, Eusebio Lozora, a Braganca hospital pathologist, is asked to perform an autopsy under strange circumstances. In the late 1980s, Canadian Senator Peter Tovy finds himself travelling with a chimpanzee from Oklahoma to a small village in the High Mountains of Portugal.

Here are three seemingly unrelated stories which inevitably intersect: three male narrators, each mourning their awful loss. But their grief does not overwhelm their stories. Martel fills his novel with unusual, different, interesting, and often amusing, elements: a brand new 4 cylinder Renault in the hands of a novice; a welcome ghost; a diary written by a missionary to slaves; the fabled Iberian rhinoceros; a very different take on the novels of Agatha Christie; a car journey across a country with a wilful chimpanzee; and a very unusual autopsy.

Martel gives the reader some wonderful descriptive prose; there is plenty of humour, some of it dark, some of it laugh-out-loud, almost slapstick; his characters are appealing, often quirky, multi-faceted, passionate and occasionally quite naive; there are interesting plots and curious sub-plots; there is profound love, deep passion and devastating loss; all of this would make rereading this novel (perhaps even several times) an unalloyed pleasure, but this one with the added bonus of uncovering even more of the numerous common elements linking each of these three loosely intersecting tales.

Martel touches on slavery, on religion, faith and saints, the ethics of primate research, how people cope with loss, the origins of man and on learning how to be in the moment, to live in the present. There are many words of wisdom and perceptive observations. He wraps it all up in brilliant prose and presents it within a wonderfully evocative cover (designed by Simone Andjelkovic). An utterly enchanting read.

A few examples of Martel’s beautiful prose:
“Loneliness comes up to him like a sniffing dog. It circles him insistently. He waves it away, but it refuses to leave”
“Every dead body is a book with a story to tell, each organ a chapter, the chapters united by a common narrative. It is Eusebio’s professional duty to read these stories, turning every page with a scalpel, and at the end of each to write a book report”
“Stories full of metaphors are by writers who play the language like a mandolin for our entertainment, novelists, poets, playwrights, and other crafters of inventions”
“Grief is a disease. We were riddled with its pockmarks, tormented by its fevers, broken by its blows. It ate at us like maggots, attacked us like lice - we scratched ourselves to the edge of madness. In the process we became as withered as crickets, as tired as old dogs”
Wanting: A Novel
by Richard Flanagan
a powerful read (1/25/2016)
Wanting is the fifth novel by award-winning Australian author, Richard Flanagan. In 1841, Mathinna, an orphaned young Aboriginal girl, one of the remaining Van Diemen’s Land indigenous who were kept on Flinders Island, was plucked from the “care” of George Augustus Robinson, the Chief Protector of Aborigines, to become the subject of an experiment in civilisation of the savage, conducted by the Governor of Van Diemen’s Land, Sir John Franklin and his wife, Lady Jane Franklin.

Mathinna loved the red silk dress she was given, but hated wearing shoes. She wanted to learn to write because she knew there was magic in it. “Dear Father, I am a good little girl. I do love my father. ……come and see mee my father. ……I have got sore feet and shoes and stockings and I am very glad……..Please sir come back from the hunt. I am here yrs daughter MATHINNA”. But when her (dead) father failed to come to her after several letters, her passion for writing faded. “And when she discovered her letters stashed in a pale wooden box….she felt not the pain of deceit for which she had no template, but the melancholy of disillusionment”.

In tandem with Mathinna’s story, Flanagan relates incidents in the life of Charles Dickens, some twenty years later. The tenuous link between the two narratives is this: when Sir John Franklin is missing in the Arctic on his search for the North West Passage, Lady Jane asks Dickens to help refute allegations of cannibalism made by explorer, Dr John Rae. Dickens also writes and stars in a play about Franklin’s lost expedition, during which he meets Ellen Ternan, the woman for whom he leaves his wife.

Flanagan’s interpretation of Mathinna’s life is certainly interesting: his extensive research into the lifestyle and common practices in the colony in the mid-nineteenth century is apparent, and he portrays very powerfully the mindset that led to the virtual extermination of the native population. While the Dickens narrative does have interesting aspects, it is so far removed from the Tasmanian story as to seem somewhat irrelevant, more of an interruption than an enhancement.

Flanagan states in his Author’s Note that “The stories of Mathinna and Dickens, with their odd but undeniable connection, suggested to me a meditation on desire-the cost of its denial, the centrality and force of its power in human affairs. That, and not history, is the true subject of Wanting”. Perhaps this statement would be better placed in a preface so that readers do not find themselves distracted wondering about the relevance of the Dickens narrative. Excellent prose make this, nonetheless, a powerful read.
A God in Ruins: A Todd Family Novel
by Kate Atkinson
Another brilliant Atkinson novel! (1/12/2016)
A God in Ruins is a book of the Todd Family by award-winning British author, Kate Atkinson. Teddy Todd: younger brother of Ursula, favourite son of Sylvie, model for his Aunt Izzie’s best-selling books, the young man whose life was cut short when he was shot down over Germany in 1944. Or not. During that dreadful war, Teddy never thought about the future: as a bomber pilot flying missions over Germany, he didn’t expect to have one.

When he came home as an ex-POW in 1945, a hero, he suddenly, quite unexpectedly, did have a future in front of him. A career (not in his father’s bank, please!), a wife, fatherhood, grandchildren: all were ahead of him in the latter half of the twentieth century.

Teddy’s war experience plays a large part in the novel, as it does in his life. But Teddy is not the only narrator of his tale: his parents, his siblings, his spouse, his child and his grandchildren all add to the story of Teddy’s unexpected life from their own perspective.

Once again Atkinson gives the reader a set of wholly believable characters, flawed but nonetheless appealing, and their reactions to the challenges life throws at them are natural and credible. And perhaps even the nasty ones have their reasons. There is plenty of humour to counter the lump-in-the-throat moments, and the irony of Ursula’s opinion on reincarnation is quite delicious. And again, Atkinson’s extensive research is apparent in every chapter.

A God in Ruins is a companion volume to Atkinson’s earlier Todd Family book and, while it is not necessary to have read Life After Life before reading A God in Ruins, there are so many common characters, events and objects that the reader who has done so will be delighted to once again encounter old friends. Another brilliant Atkinson novel! Recommended.
Life After Life
by Kate Atkinson
Another brilliant offering from this exceptional author (1/4/2016)
Life After Life is a book of the Todd Family by award-winning British author, Kate Atkinson. Ursula Todd is born during a snowstorm on the night of 11th February, 1910. She does this again and again, and this fact (amongst others) remains constant throughout the telling of Ursula’s lives, but, of course, there are also differences.

When, seemingly through chance, she does survive her birth, and the trials and potentially fatal mishaps that plague her childhood, Ursula’s lives revolve around the family that inhabits Fox Corner, parents, siblings, a rather wild paternal aunt who visits, neighbours and friends.

As an adult, Ursula’s life, along with those around her, is profoundly affected by war. Her favourite brother, Teddy loses his life when he is shot down over Berlin. But is there something she can do to stop seemingly inevitable events from occurring?

What a talented author Kate Atkinson is! She explores the idea that one might be able to change history, given enough chances, and does so in a familiar setting, with characters that easily find their way into the reader’s heart (well, except for Maurice, that is). Add to that the interesting perspectives of certain well-known events: the London Blitz from the perspective of an Air Raid Precautions warden; the bombing of Berlin from the point of view of the German common people.

Atkinson’s depth of research is apparent in every chapter. Each of Ursula’s incarnations reveals a little more of the family, their history and character, as well as historic events like the influenza epidemic of 1918. From a literary perspective, the use of multiple incarnations is a novel device that allows her to try out a multitude of different life events with just one character.

While this is nothing like her Jackson Brodie books, fans of her work will not be disappointed. Luckily, they will be able to extend the pleasure (and get another dose of the Todd family and Fox Corner) in the companion volume, A god In Ruins. Another brilliant offering from this exceptional author.
The Carnivorous Carnival: Book the Ninth (A Series of Unfortunate Events)
by Lemony Snicket, Brett Helquist
much appeal for younger readers, (12/14/2015)
The Carnivorous Carnival is the ninth book in A Series of Unfortunate Events by American author, Lemony Snicket (aka Daniel Handler). As we once again join the unlucky Baudelaire orphans, they are trapped in the trunk of Count Olaf’s car as it travels to the Hinterlands down the Rarely Ridden Road to consult Madame Lulu at the Caligari Carnival. Once there, and unable to contact their banker, ever-tussive Mr Poe by phone, they need to adopt a disguise so that they are not recognised by Olaf and his cronies. As a two-headed man and a wolf-baby, they become part of the Freak Show.

Having narrowly escaped a burning hospital and already suffered the loss of their parents, the threat of marriage, slave labour, hypnosis, a terrible boarding school, being thrown down a lift shaft, being thrown in jail, and the murder of their Uncle Monty and Aunt Josephine at the hands of the evil Count Olaf and his nefarious assistants, the siblings are ever-vigilant of his reappearance. Luckily these well-mannered and uncomplaining children are also very resourceful: Violet invents, Klaus researches and Sunny bites.

Snicket’s tone throughout is apologetic, sincere and matter-of-fact as he relates the unfortunate events in the children’s lives; his imaginative and even surreptitiously educational style will hold much appeal for younger readers, as will the persistent silliness of adults. Snicket’s word and phrase definitions are often hilarious. As always, the alliterative titles are delightful and Brett Helquist provides some wonderfully evocative illustrations.

This instalment sees the Baudelaires poked fun at by the Carnival audience, learning that one of their parents may have survived that fatal fire, discovering a fraud, narrowly escaping the a mob’s violent urges and, against their better judgement, joining forces with Count Olaf. Snicket does a clever thing with “déjà vu” in chapter five, but the utter stupidity of the adults around the Baudelaires is a constant theme that is starting to wear a little thin.

Will Violet and Klaus be able to find the headquarters of the VFD in the Mortmain Mountains? Will they be able to catch up with Count Olaf, his cronies and their baby sister Sunny? Will they discover the contents of the missing Snicket file? Readers will have to read the next instalment, The Slippery Slope, to find out.
Slade House
by David Mitchell
another excellent offering from this talented author. (12/13/2015)
Slade House is the seventh novel by British author, David Mitchell. Slade House is a haunted house with a difference. It is not easily found, nor can just anyone get in. But once every nine years, at the end of Otober, a guest enters from Slade Alley through a mysteriously transient black iron door, and a good time is had by all, for a while, at least. And then….

Mitchell divides his tale into five chapters. Each is set nine years apart, and events are narrated by the guest (except for the last chapter). These events follow a pattern, and there are many common elements, but the differences are significant and important. And while it is quite apparent what will happen by the second chapter, the finer details and nuances are expanded in each chapter.

This novel has an interesting and clever plot with a few twists. The characters are believable and their dialogue natural. Mitchell establishes the era easily with seamless references to politics, popular music and film, literature and current affairs. The genre is described as horror, although it is not of the blood-thirsty variety. It can easily be read as a stand-alone, but does have characters and features in common with other Mitchell novels, in particular The Bone Clocks, so fans of Mitchell’s work will enjoy placing these in their original context. Shorter than his usual, this is, nonetheless, another excellent offering from this talented author.
Above the Waterfall
by Ron Rash
A brilliant read. (11/9/2015)
“Though sunlight tinges the mountains, black leather-winged bodies swing low. First fireflies blink languidly. Beyond this meadow, cicadas rev and slow like sewing machines. All else is ready for night except night itself. I watch the last light lift off level land. Ground shadows seep and thicken. Circling trees form banks. The meadow itself becomes a pond filling, on its surface dozens of black-eyed susans”

This, the first paragraph of Ron Rash’s sixth novel, assures readers that they are, once again, in for a feast of beautiful prose. While his evocative descriptions of place confirm Rash’s love of the Appalachia, this award-winning American author works the same magic on his characters, and not just the major ones. Be they strong or weak, principled or easily corrupted, it soon becomes apparent that he cares just as much for the people that populate the North Carolina mountains.

His tale covers a five-day period during which Les, a sheriff about to retire, deals not only with meth addicts, but also a fish-kill at a local upmarket Resort. It seems from video evidence and earlier confrontations that Gerald Blackwelder, an elderly widower with a bad heart, is responsible. But Becky Shytle, the Park Ranger with whom Les has a tentative relationship, is convinced that Gerald is innocent. Of course, Les knows that Becky has been wrong about a man before.

This novel is not about the mystery, the who of which is relatively obvious, the how and why, fairly easily solved, but about the characters and their interaction. The first person narrative is shared by Les and Becky: distinguishing between the two is easy when one pays attention to the context; but Rash also uses different styles of narrative, giving Becky a much more lyrical voice, a poetic way with words. Les muses: “You can see heaven all around us, Preacher Waldorp claimed. But Mist Creek Valley would soon confirm that the same was true of hell”, while Becky describes her night under the stars thus: “Above me that night, tiny lights brightened and dimmed, brightened and dimmed. Photinus carolinus. Fireflies synchronized to make a single meadow-wide flash, then all dark between. Like being inside the earth’s pulsing heart”

Rash touches on a myriad of topics: depression, guilt, post-traumatic stress, the divide between legal and moral, loyalty, and the strength of the bond with place. “I’d seen others besides C.J.’s great-uncle leave houses where they and their families had lived for generations. They’d enter nursing homes or move in with sons or daughters. Like I told C.J., you’d be going to their funerals within six months”

Readers new to Rash’s work are sure to want to seek out his backlist; fans will not be disappointed with this latest work. A brilliant read.
If I Fall, If I Die
by Michael Christie
A remarkable debut. (11/8/2015)
“Since he’d been Outside, he’d learned that fear was only a default setting, like how the TV always starts at channel 3 when you first turn it on. That everyone is born afraid of everything, but most people build calluses over top of it”

If I Fall, If I Die is the first novel by prize-winning Canadian author and skateboarder, Michael Christie. Since he was a small boy, eleven-year-old Will Cardiel has lived Inside with his mom. Going Outside would just trigger a Black Lagoon for her, so he doesn’t. Until today. Unable to ignore a loud noise, he investigates, meets another boy his age, and sets in motion major changes in his life.

Diane Cardiel has agoraphobia. Once a successful filmmaker, her anxiety is now so great (“…her heart insisted on racing, like an oil-doused bird flapping for its life in her chest. Other sensations, too, unmistakeable as neon: a dull pain throughout, a soreness in her blood, a twisting in her gut, stardust in her fingertips. It would pass, a mere miscalculation of an errant brain that found danger where there was none, that saw a lion instead of the lamb before her”) that her life is limited to inside their house in Thunder Bay (and sometimes, inside her bedroom).

Her fears for Will are many, but she knows that one day soon, she will have to let him go, let him live a normal life. When he insists on going to school, she somehow manages her anxiety. But when she discovers he has been going to the waterfront, to the grain elevators, her dread is overwhelming: “…what drove her panic today wasn’t that her brother had died at the elevators, just as her father did, or that her mother died a young woman. It was that anyone did. Anywhere. That tragedy made no distinction. That it claimed equally those who invited it and those who didn’t. Those treasured, and those ignored. That there was no protection, no spell. It knew every face. Every address”

The story, told over two years of Will’s life, is narrated by Will, by Diane and by a man named Titus, whose identity is gradually revealed (although astute readers will guess correctly). Christie gives the reader a plausible plot, with several mysteries that take twists and turns before being finally resolved. His characters are complex and believable: none are wholly good, all have flaws and failings. There is plenty of humour in Will’s discovery of the Outside world.

Christie gives the reader some marvellous descriptive prose. He can evoke the feel of an agoraphobic’s terror as easily as the confusion of an adolescent: “…such magnitudes of time had a similar underwhelming effect as when his mother first taught him that every single star was actually another sun just like theirs. They created a humph – then nothing. Some information was too enormous to cram into your mind”

Christie obviously writes from experience: he grew up in Thunder Bay himself, and his love of skateboarding is apparent. This moving coming-of-age novel also touches on the plight of Native Canadians, the dangers of grain elevators, the attraction of pure grain liquor and the debilitating effects of agoraphobia. A remarkable debut.
The Lake House
by Kate Morton
A brilliant read (11/3/2015)
“We are all victims of our human experience, apt to view the present through the lens of our own past”

The Lake House is the fifth novel by Australian author, Kate Morton. DC Sadie Sparrow has had to take leave from the job she loves. She got so deeply involved in a case, following instinct over evidence, that she secretly did something that would get her suspended if her boss knew. A month in Cornwall with her widower grandfather, Bertie, and she’s itching to get back to London, where the real action is. But then one day, while running through the woods with the dogs, she stumbles upon an abandoned house by the lake. Bertie’s neighbour mentions that this was the site of the tragic disappearance of 11 month old Theo Edevane, a mystery still unsolved after seventy years: Sadie is hooked.

When successful mystery writer A.C. Edevane receives a letter from the young police constable enquiring about her family’s past, she fears that the secret she has kept for seventy years is about to be revealed. Alice is sure that when she was sixteen, consumed with fervour for both her writing and a certain unsuitable person, her foolish actions leading up to the Midsummer’s Eve party were instrumental in the kidnapping of her baby brother.

Morton sets her novel over two time periods. The events that led up to, and followed on from, the tragedy in the early to mid-twentieth century are narrated by many of the key players: young Alice, her mother, her father, her grandmother, a gardener, a close family friend and even baby Theo; what occurs in 2003 is told by Sadie, Alice and her assistant, Peter. And while the time periods are clearly indicated at the start of the chapters, the style of prose, the descriptions and dialogue also reflect this.

Morton gives the reader an expertly crafted mystery. At first she has the reader wondering about Alice’s role in Theo’s disappearance, then, with each new revelation, has the reader discarding one theory concerning Theo’s fate and postulating another. There are miscommunications, misunderstandings, secrets and misplaced guilt. And while the main mystery involves baby Theo, there are at least three other mysteries to distract the reader. There are twists and red herrings and surprises, and the ending holds a delicious irony. And all this is done with characters that are interesting and beautiful prose that evokes the wonderful setting.

“Those afternoons in the library, breathing the stale sun-warmed dust of a thousand stories (accented by the collective mildew of a hundred years of rising damp), had been enchanted. …. Peter was beset with an almost bodily sense of being back there. His limbs twitched with the memory of being nine years old and lanky as a foal. His mood lifted as he remembered how large, how filled with possibilities, and yet, at once, how safe and navigable the world had seemed when he was shut within those four walls”. A brilliant read.
by Garry Disher
a brilliant read (10/30/2015)
Incredible as it may seem, I had never read any of Garry Disher’s Wyatt series, so I had no idea of the depth of reading pleasure in store for me when I started his latest offering, “Wyatt”.
Wyatt has been away; now he’s back. The plot begins with a planned jewel heist but takes many a twist and turn before the final page. Wyatt seems to be a crook with principles, but he doesn’t hesitate to kill if that’s what’s needed. And there are plenty of dead bodies strewn throughout this novel. The action is fast-paced and “the goods” change hands with dizzying frequency.
Disher is a master of description; this novel is full of realistic, down-to-earth, gutsy characters; the dialogue is razor-sharp. Wyatt’s theory about words: “The words had a job to do and were not to be squandered” could apply equally to Disher himself. He may be economical with them, but he certainly chooses the right ones and strings them together in a most satisfying order.
There are some delicious ironies: one set of thieves referring to the people who robbed them as “the thieves”; the robbing, at one stage, being done by a cop.
It is easy to see why this novel has won the Ned Kelly Award for Best Crime Fiction 2010. Readers will have difficulty putting it down. There was a 13 year hiatus between the last Wyatt novel and this one: let’s hope we don’t have to wait as long for the next one. This was my first Wyatt novel, but certainly not my last.
The Zig Zag Girl
by Elly Griffiths
an excellent murder mystery (10/26/2015)
The Zig Zag Girl is a stand-alone novel by British author, Elly Griffiths. Brighton, England, 1950: the young woman had been sawn in three; the parts, contained in black wooden boxes fastened with brass clips, were discovered in the Left Luggage room of the railway station. Witness descriptions are vague, but several aspects of the case cause DI Edgar Stephens, lead investigator, to travel to Eastbourne to seek out Max Mephisto, magician.

Their association began in Inverness during the war, when they were part of a Secret Service team, the Magic Men, but a tragic event had seen the end of team, and their involvement . The resemblance to one of Max’s tricks, the Zig Zag Girl, is strong, but he cannot cast any light on the matter, even when he learns, to his shock, the identity of the victim. When Max’s engagements bring him to Brighton, another death staged as a magic trick leads him to team up with Edgar in an effort to find the killer.

In keeping with the magic trick theme, Griffiths cleverly divides her novel into four parts, aptly titled: The Build-Up, Misdirection, Raising the Stakes and The Reveal. She uses two narrators, Edgar and Max, to convey different parts of the story as well as to give different perspectives on events. The immediate post-war era ensures the absence of mobile phones, internet, DNA and even many personal vehicles; thus the detective work relies on heavily on legwork, personal visits and intelligent deduction.

Griffiths gives the reader characters that are real and flawed; some are vain and selfish; others distracted by misdirection and convinced by illusion. Her plot is clever and original and has a few twists that even the most astute reader may fail to anticipate. The atmosphere of post-war Britain is skilfully evoked with description, dialogue and the attitudes common at the time. This is an excellent murder mystery from the author of the Ruth Galloway crime novels, and fans will not be disappointed.
Recipes for Love and Murder: A Tannie Maria Mystery
by Sally Andrew
a stunning debut (10/23/2015)
“Recipe for Murder
1 stocky man who abuses his wife
1 small tender wife
1 medium-sized tough woman in love with the wife
1 double-barrelled shotgun
1 small Karoo town marinated in secrets
3 bottles of Klipdrift brandy
3 little ducks
1 bottle of pomegranate juice
1 handful of chilli peppers
1 mild gardener
1 fire poker
1 red-hot New Yorker
7 Seventh-day Adventists (prepared for The End of the World)
1 hard-boiled investigative journalist
1 soft amateur detective
2 cool policemen
1 lamb
1 handful of red herrings and suspects mixed together
Pinch of greed
Throw all the ingredients into a big pot and simmer slowly, stirring with a wooden spoon for a few years. Add the ducks, chillies and brandy towards the end and turn up the heat”

Recipes for Love and Murder: A Tannie Maria Mystery is the first novel by South African author, Sally Andrew. Tannie Maria’s Recipe for Murder perfectly sums up the plot of this captivating novel. The Recipe Columnist for the Klein Karoo Gazette, Tannie Maria has to think laterally when the powers that be decree that the Gazette must have an Advice Column. The result is Tannie Maria’s Love Advice and Recipe Column. It is sometimes a challenge, but Tannie Maria manages to give the right advice and just the right recipe to most or her correspondents.

She is disturbed, though, by an anonymous letter from a woman whose husband beats her. And it seems her best advice is not good enough, when a woman fitting her description is murdered. Tannie and her colleagues at the Gazette feel obliged to help the Police to get their man (the husband, obviously!). But it turns out that everything is not quite so straight-forward. Another murder, a suspected poisoning, a threatening letter, a mutilated pair of veldskoene and a kidnapping (or two) will come to pass before the truth is revealed.

Amongst a cast of interesting, appealing and often crazy characters, Tannie Maria is a standout favourite. She is a truly delightful character: a cross between Mma Ramotswe and Corinna Chapman, she places great importance on good food. She shares her thoughts with her food, and food, or the preparation of it, feature in most of her descriptions, as “The fan on the ceiling was going round and round. It was like an oven with a thermafan. Jessie, Hattie and I were all being evenly baked as we sat at our desks” and “He had one of those silly moustaches, like a little boy who’s drunk chocolate milk” demonstrate.

This is a murder mystery with plenty of humour, some of it slapstick, some understated, but readers will find themselves smiling, chuckling and laughing out loud. Andrew regularly gives her heroine words of wisdom: “We can be sure that our lives will end with death. There’s not much we can do about that. But you can add love and good food to your life. That is your choice”. She also touches on some topical issues like domestic violence, organic farming and fracking. And includes over 20 pages of mouth-watering recipes. A glossary would be helpful for those who don’t understand Afrikaans or Dutch, but most words are repeated in English. This is a stunning debut, and readers will be hoping this really is the start of a series. Highly recommended!

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