Reviews by Cloggie Downunder

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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.
The Seventh Day: A Novel
by Yu Hua
thought-provoking (1/27/2015)
The Seventh Day is the fifth novel by acclaimed Chinese novelist and essayist, Yu Hua. At forty-one, Yang Fei dies in an Eatery explosion, but, having no burial plot, and no-one to buy one for him, he eventually finds himself wandering in a sort of Limbo, the Land of the Unburied. He wears a black armband: he mourns his own death as there is no-one else to do so. As he drifts around the afterlife, he encounters people who look familiar but do not sound like those he knew in life, people now also dead.

He also meets certain people he has heard about, and all have interesting tales to tell. Travelling the path of memory, Fei recalls the story of his birth, his rescue from certain death by Yang Jinbiao, a loving childhood with Jinbiao and close neighbours, meeting his birth mother, his short-lived marriage to the beautiful Qi Ling, Jinbiao’s illness, departure and Fei’s search for him, and Fei’s own death.

With Fei’s memories and the stories of those he encounters, Yu employs an interesting device for commenting on contemporary China: nominally Communist, yet corruption is rife, classes of society do exist and social injustice abounds. He shows the homeless living in bomb shelters, yet craving iPhone 4s, blogging on QQ, selling kidneys for cash and committing suicide for apparently trivial reasons. While the forced demolitions, threats, payment of hush money, cover-ups, propaganda (like downward estimates of victims and deaths), abuse of privilege, bribery and foetuses regarded as medical waste paint a depressing picture, there are lighter moments.

The absurdities of the cross-dressing prostitute and his arresting policeman, the singing babies, the Eatery in the Land of the Unburied and the courtship of the hairwashers provide a bit of fun, and Fei’s relationship with his adopted father and neighbours is truly uplifting and often transcends the hopelessness in face of tragedy and misfortune. This thought-provoking novel is flawlessly translated from Chinese by Allan H. Barr. Fans of Yu Hua’s earlier work will not be disappointed.
Funny Girl
by Nick Hornby
another brilliant dose of Hornby at his best (1/4/2015)
“What was he doing with her? How on earth could he love her? But he did. Or, at least, she made him feel sick, sad and distracted. Perhaps there was another way of describing that unique and useless combination of feelings, but ‘love’ would have to do for now”

Funny Girl is the sixth full-length novel by British author, Nick Hornby. Set, for the most part, in the mid-to-late 1960s, Hornby’s latest novel gives the reader an intimate look at the making of a TV comedy series. His TV show, cast and crew are fictional, but Hornby firmly establishes the era with historical fact, using mentions of real-life politicians, personalities and events, as well as photographs, an advertisements and a cartoon strip. By adding extracts of scripts, a book cover, reviews, and program notes, he gives the whole thing an authenticity that will delight readers familiar with those years.

Barbara Parker’s heroine is Lucille Ball, and her ambition is to be in comedy TV. She may be beautiful enough to win Miss Blackpool, but she gives it up in an instant to head to London, to become Sophie Straw, and, eventually, to audition for a BBC Comedy Playhouse show. Before too long, she is starring, as (ironically) Barbara from Blackpool, in a hugely popular sitcom series about a married couple, written by her comic heroes, Bill Gardiner and Tony Holmes, and titled “Barbara (and Jim)”.

Characters and dialogue are Hornby’s strengths, and he does not disappoint with Funny Girl. It is impossible not to like and care about this diverse bunch, despite (or perhaps because of) their many and varied flaws: vanity, confusion about sexuality, selfishness, superficiality, timidity. There is plenty of humour, much of it dry, the sort that elicits wry chuckles rather than laugh-out-loud guffaws (“Davie remained undeterred. In his mind’s eye, he said, he always saw Clive as a cowboy. Clive had always thought that Davie needed his mind’s eye tested”).

Topical themes of the sixties feature: feminism, homosexuality and the sexually permissive society (“He was talking about the times they all suddenly lived in, and how hard it was not to be a small boy in a sweet shop with no cash register”). This is a novel in which life imitates art, but also, often, the reverse, as the writers of the show rely on what they know. This funny and moving novel is another brilliant dose of Hornby at his best.
The Kill Room: A Lincoln Rhyme Thriller
by Jeffery Deaver
Deaver page-turner (1/4/2015)
The Kill Room is the tenth full-length novel in the Lincoln Rhyme series by American author, Jeffery Deaver. Lincoln Rhyme, Amelia Sachs and the team are asked to assist in the case of an assassination, but the case has political implications. Assistant DA, Nance Laurel is determined to get a conviction against Shreve Metzger, the head of the Washington-sanctioned National Intelligence and Operations Service, for authorising the shooting of an out-spoken anti-American activist in his hotel room in the Bahamas on insufficient evidence of potential threat.

With no crime scene to examine, and virtually no cooperation from the Bahamian Police, Rhyme and Sachs find it difficult to make progress. And keeping their investigation under wraps is difficult as the NIOS seems to have inside information: possible witnesses and sources are being eliminated even as the team are on their way to investigate, and soon, it seems, members of the team themselves are also in danger.

This instalment touches on several topical themes: the ethics of pe-emptive strike; anger management; the selective dissemination of information; and the use of unmanned aerial vehicles. Deaver has Rhyme travelling to the Bahamas, but handles this much more realistically than Patterson’s excursion to Africa for Alex Cross. There is a wealth of information about knives, guns and bullets, as well as quite a bit on recipes and cooking.

Deaver will need to have his own legal team at the ready: there are so many twists and turns in both plot and characters that some reader is bound to sue for whiplash injury. He gives the reader several exciting climaxes and a truly ruthless killer, but nothing is quite what it first seems in this Deaver page-turner.
Elegy for Eddie: A Maisie Dobbs Novel
by Jacqueline Winspear
Another excellent Winspear mystery. (12/28/2014)
“Everything good has a dark side, even generosity. It can become overbearing, intimidating, even humiliating – and no one likes to think someone else is pulling the strings….”

Elegy For Eddie is the ninth book in the Maisie Dobbs series by British-born American author, Jacqueline Winspear. Maisie Dobbs, psychologist and private investigator, is asked to investigate the supposedly accidental death of a simple man with an uncanny gift for dealing with horses. Eddie Pettit was well-known and loved amongst the costermongers of Covent Garden, former associates of Maisie’s father, Frankie, and they are sceptical about the circumstances of Eddie’s death.

As Billy Beale and Maisie try to discover a motive for his death, they learn that Eddie had certain special talents that were not apparent. Maisie discovers two other deaths that were ruled suicides but which strike her as suspicious, and Billy’s investigations land him in the hospital. His wife Doreen’s slowly-recovering mental health suffers a setback, and Maisie is taken to task for her need for control. Her relationship with James Compton takes a new direction, Maisie accepts counsel from an unexpected quarter and discovers a few surprising things about her father, her best friend’s husband and her lover.

This instalment is set in April 1933, against a background of increasing Fascism in Germany that signals the possibility of another war. Winspear touches on the power of the press, the subtle use of propaganda, and the balance between freedom of information and the need for national security, as well as the position of women in society. Winspear develops her main characters more fully and her plot takes a few unexpected turns. Another excellent Winspear mystery.
The Crane Wife
by Patrick Ness
Quite magical. (12/21/2014)
“…a story …is a net, a net through which the truth flows. The net catches some of the truth, but not all, never all, only enough so that we can live with the extraordinary without it killing us”

The Crane Wife is the third stand-alone novel by American author, journalist and lecturer, Patrick Ness. He takes the old Japanese folktale of the same title and gives it a modern twist. George Duncan, a forty-eight-year-old divorced American living in London, goes outside on a cold winter’s night to find a crane with an arrow through its wing. He manages to remove the arrow, the crane flies off, and by the next day he is unsure it wasn’t all a dream. In his print shop the next day, he is toying half-heartedly with his latest artistic hobby, cuttings from discarded paperbacks mounted onto black backgrounds, when a woman comes in, introduces herself as Kumiko, and changes his life.

George’s adult daughter, Amanda is divorced from Henri, the father of her young son, JP (Jean Pierre) and, despite a loving upbringing, has difficulty maintaining close relationships, parents and son excepted. Her latest friendships with work colleagues, Rachel and Mei, seem to be disintegrating before her eyes. Amanda is stunned by the speed at which her father’s courtship of Kumiko progresses until she meets this remarkable woman herself.

This is a wonderful tale featuring quirky yet appealing characters and filled with beautiful prose: “…it was one of those special corners of what’s real, one of those moments, only a handful of which he could recall throughout his lifetime, where the world dwindled down to almost no one, where it seemed to pause just for him, so that he could, for a moment, be seized into life” and “The books on George’s walls were his sand mandala….they were the most serene reflection of his internal state. Or if not quite his internal state, then at least the internal state he would like to have had” and “…it was nothing at all like those hunched, purplish grey birds he sometimes saw skulking around the city like unwashed old gentlemen” are but a few examples.

Ness gives his characters plenty of words of wisdom: “…the inability of people to see themselves clearly. To see what they are actually like, not what they fear they are like or what they wish to be like, but what they actually are. Why is what you are never enough for you?” and explores the nature of truth and stories: “There were many truths – overlapping, stewed together – as there were tellers. The truth mattered less than the story’s life. A story forgotten died. A story remembered not only lived, but grew”

“He would tell her story. Not her whole story, of course, but the story of him and her, the story he knew, which were the only stories anyone could ever really tell. It would be only a glimpse, from one set of eyes” And what a superb story it is. Quite magical.
A Lesson in Secrets: A Maisie Dobbs Novel
by Jacqueline Winspear
Another great read (12/15/2014)
A Lesson In Secrets is the eighth book in the Maisie Dobbs series by British-born American author, Jacqueline Winspear. After being (somewhat ineptly) followed for some ten days, psychologist and investigator, Maisie Dobbs finds herself recruited into the Secret Intelligence Service by Brian Huntley (as was hinted by her late mentor during his last days), to work a job in conjunction with Robbie MacFarlane of Scotland Yard Special Branch. Having signed the Official Secrets Act, she is to pose as a psychology lecturer at The College of St Francis whilst observing for activities that are not in the interest of the Crown. But when she has been there only a week, the Principal of the College, Greville Liddicote, a staunch pacifist, is murdered. And a little research reveals quite a few possible suspects.

While Maisie is away, Billy Beale manages the Investigations business, although he is to some degree distracted by the impending birth of his fourth child. Luckily Maisie is able to convince her reluctant employee to become her tenant in a new cottage in which she invests some of her newfound wealth. A former flatmate comes to Maisie in distress: recently widowed, and with some doubt about the accidental nature of her husband’s death, Sandra accepts a job but remains unsettled. Maisie’s relationship with James Compton encounters a few hurdles.

In this instalment, Winspear touches on conscientious objection, mutiny amongst the troops, Nazism, fraud, organised crime and protection rackets, the role of women in the resistance and a nerve disorder that sounds a lot like Multiple Sclerosis. Maisie is frustrated at the Secret Service’s focus on Communism at the expense of Fascism, and Robert Stratton makes a surprise move. A baby is born and Maisie visits Wandsworth Prison. As always, Winspear blends historical fact with fiction while her plot takes a few twists before the murderer is revealed. It will be interesting to see where the next book, Elegy for Eddie takes this resourceful heroine. Another great read.
Fortunately, the Milk
by Neil Gaiman
A fun read. (12/14/2014)
Fortunately, The Milk is the fourth book for young readers by British author, Neil Gaiman. Mum’s away, Dad’s in charge and there’s no milk for breakfast. Dad pops down to the corner shop to get some, but seems to take forever to get back. He explains to his sceptical son and daughter just what took him so long.

The back cover blurb of this book claims that no Green Globby Aliens, no Pirates, no Angry Volcano Gods demanding human sacrifice, no Intergalactic Police, and no Hot Air Balloon piloted by an accomplished Stegosaurus feature, but, while not wishing to include a spoiler, this is patently false. All these things, and many more, do appear in the pages of this book. Gaiman delights young (and maybe not-so-young) readers with a brilliantly inventive plot while Chris Riddell enhances the text with lots of marvellous illustrations. A fun read.
The Mapping of Love and Death: A Maisie Dobbs Novel
by Jacqueline Winspear
an excellent read (12/6/2014)
The Mapping of Love and Death is the seventh book in the Maisie Dobbs series by British-born American author, Jacqueline Winspear. Psychologist and investigator, Maisie Dobbs is engaged by a Boston couple, Edward and Martha Clifton, whose youngest son, Michael, died in the trenches in France in 1917. Not until fifteen years later were his remains found, and with them, letters from an English Nurse.

Michael was a cartographer who had just spent part of his inheritance on land in California that he felt sure bore oil. When the autopsy report shows that he was murdered, Maisie is asked to track down his unnamed nurse and, if she can, to find his murderer. To distract her from her task, James Compton returns from Canada for good, her mentor, Maurice Blanche becomes increasingly frail, and Billy Beal is understandably apprehensive about Doreen’s return from hospital.

This instalment explores the vital role of cartographers in war, as well as the important contribution of the many Nursing Units, and the purpose of cinematographers on the front lines. Maisie has to deal with DI Caldwell now that Stratton has gone to Special Branch; she is mugged, goes to car races, visits the School of Military Engineers and more than one hospital. The value of post-traumatic counselling is highlighted, and Winspear drags several red herrings through her plot to keep the reader guessing on more than one front. The final chapters see great changes wrought in Maisie’s personal life and presage possible major alterations in her career. Once again, an excellent read that will have readers seeking out the next book in the series, A Lesson In Secrets.
The Bookman's Tale: A Novel of Obsession
by Charlie Lovett
an excellent literary mystery (11/29/2014)
“Anticipation brought a cold sweat to the back of his neck. Why had he come? He could be safe in his sitting room with a cup of tea right now instead of standing on a cold street corner with a sense of dread settling into the pit of his stomach……he slipped through an open doorway into the back room where books lined every wall. He closed his eyes for a moment, imagining the cocoon of books shielding him from all danger, inhaling deeply that familiar scent of cloth and leather and dust and words. His rushing pulse began to slow…”

The Bookman’s Tale is the third novel by American writer, teacher and playwright, Charlie Lovett. Antiquarian bookseller, Peter Byerly is still a broken man after the death of his wife, Amanda, in Ridgefield, North Carolina, some nine months earlier. He has escaped concerned family and friends to maintain a reclusive existence in a stone cottage in the village of Kingham, Oxfordshire, the cottage he and Amanda had just finished renovating together. On his first attempt to resume normal activities, he visits a bookshop in Hay-on-Wye and happens upon, tucked inside a book on forgeries, a miniature Victorian watercolour of a woman who looks uncannily like his late wife. It is signed “B.B.”

It is curiosity about this intriguing likeness together with a call from a member of the local gentry about some rare books for sale that has Peter interacting with the villagers and travelling to London for a meeting of the Historical Watercolour Society, thus following one of his therapist’s instructions for recovery. He is certainly not expecting to discover the “Holy Grail” of rare books, a document that will prove, once and for all, that Shakespeare was indeed the author of the works attributed to him. Nor is he expecting to encounter a murderer.

The story is told in three narrative strands that cover different time periods and places: one strand follows the creation of said document and its journey through time from Shakespeare’s day to the late nineteenth century; another describes Peter’s introduction to the two loves of his life, Amanda and the world of rare books; the third relates the rollercoaster ride of events that follow Peter’s discovery.

Lovett gives the reader an excellent literary mystery that incorporates a believable plot with a few twists, appealing characters, a beautiful romance, a good dose of humour, a secret tunnel, murder, theft, forgery, blackmail, adultery, suicide, seduction and, of course, rare books. His expertise with rare editions and their restoration and his enthusiasm for his subject are apparent in every paragraph. He imparts a wealth of knowledge and presents it in an easily digestible manner. Lovett skilfully blends fact with fiction and the “what if” scenario on which the plot hangs generates more than enough intrigue to make this a real page-turner with an exciting climax. Highly recommended.
Among the Mad: A Maisie Dobbs Novel
by Jacqueline Winspear
Another excellent instalment in the Maisie Dobbs series (11/25/2014)
“…inside the villain is a victim…”

Among The Mad is the sixth book in the Maisie Dobbs series by British-born American author, Jacqueline Winspear. After witnessing a suicide in the street near her office, Maisie is seconded by Special Branch to help investigate a case, possibly related, involving letters containing non-specific threats to the public, and finds herself visiting No 10 Downing Street. It is of concern that MI5 are also involved, but Maisie’s special skills and her unique perspective prove helpful when the team are working to a deadline. Billy’s wife, Doreen is hospitalised, and Maisie’s close friend, Pris is not coping well with her move from Biarritz.

Winspear gives her readers another interesting plot with a twist or two, and she touches on many issues: reactive depression, its various manifestations and shocking treatment regimens; the high prevalence of shell shock and the scandalously inadequate support given to affected servicemen; and research into chemical weapons and victims of experimentation.

For this investigation, Maisie has to visit the Battesea Dogs Home, hospitals, research facilities and an orphanage. She manages to save the day at no small risk to herself, as well as proving herself a supportive employer and a resourceful friend. She makes a purchase that may well come in handy in future investigations. Another excellent installment in the Maisie Dobbs series, and readers will look forward the next book, The Mapping of Love and Death.
At Home: A Short History of Private Life
by Bill Bryson
Another excellent Bryson offering. (11/22/2014)
“…centuries and centuries of people quietly going about their daily business - eating, sleeping, having sex, endeavouring to be amused – ant it occurred to me….that that’s really what history is: masses of people doing ordinary things”

At Home: a short history of private life is the fifteenth book by American author, Bill Bryson. With his uniquely individual style, Bryson takes the reader around his house, an 1851 Norfolk rectory, and he explores the history of activities that are (sometimes very loosely) associated with each room’s designation. Thus he touches on a vast array of topics and presents all sorts of noteworthy, sometimes surprising and occasionally hilarious facts.

At over six hundred pages of content, this is quite a brick, but is, as with many Bryson books, easy to read and thoroughly fascinating. Bryson has a talent for making the most ordinary, everyday subject interesting, and in this book he also explains the origin of many terms in common usage that we seldom think about, along with their meanings. Another excellent Bryson offering.
Perfect
by Rachel Joyce
A moving and uplifting read. (11/16/2014)
“Sometimes it is easier, he thinks, to live out the mistakes we have made than to summon the energy and imagination to repair them”

Perfect is the second novel by bestselling British author, Rachel Joyce. In the heat of the 1972 English summer, Byron Hemmings, an intense and thoughtful eleven-year-old boy, is worried. His best friend (and the smartest boy in school), James Lowe has told him two seconds are to be added to time. He understands it is necessary, but can’t shake a feeling of terror. When those two seconds appear to result in a car accident involving Diana Hemmings’ perfect Jaguar, Byron worries incessantly about the consequences and, despite his best efforts to follow the meticulous plans James makes, his known universe begins to unravel.

Joyce uses two narrators to tell her story: young Byron relates the events of that 1972 summer; Jim, a man in his fifties whose life is governed by rituals, intersperses his narration of his present day life (currently being disrupted by a red-headed cook uttering profanities) with memories of earlier times and how he came to live most of his life in a mental institution. These narratives approach a common point, gradually revealing the summer’s tragic conclusion.

Joyce renders the feel of the seventies summer and the present day winter with great skill. Her descriptive prose is often breathtaking: “The sun was not yet fully risen and, caught in the low weak shaft of light, the dew shone silver over the meadow although the crust of earth beneath was hard and cracked. The ox-eye daisies made white pools on the lower hills while every tree sprang a black leak away from the sun’s light. The air smelt new and green like mint” and “A flock of gulls flew east, rising and falling, as if they might clean the sky with their wings” and “With a clutter of wings a flock of starlings lifts into the air, unravelling and lengthening like black ribbon” are just a few samples.

Her characters are appealing and the reader cannot help having sympathy for their situation: Diana’s feelings of inadequacy, Byron’s need to protect his beloved mother (“Like a splinter in his head, the truth was always there, and even though he tried to avoid it by being careful, sometimes he forgot to be careful and there it was”), Jim’s attempts to be normal (“No one knows how to be normal, Jim. We’re all just trying our best. Sometimes we don’t have to think about it and other times it’s like running after a bus that’s already halfway down the street.”) Byron’s anxiety is palpable and Joyce portrays mental conditions like depression and OCD with both insight and humour.

She gives her characters words of wisdom: “They’re playing with us, aren’t they?.....The gods. We think we understand, we’ve invented science, but we haven’t a clue. Maybe the clever people are not the ones who think they’re clever. Maybe the clever people are the ones who accept they know nothing” and “Sometimes caring for something already growing is more perilous than planting something new”. On more than one occasion, the reader may well be moved to tears. Fans of Joyce’s work will not be disappointed and newcomers will want to seek out her other books. A moving and uplifting read.
The Miniaturist
by Jessie Burton
a brilliant read (11/14/2014)
The Miniaturist is the first novel by British author, Jessie Burton. Amsterdam in the late 1680s is a prosperous place for merchants of the VOC (Dutch East India Company). When eighteen-year-old Petronella Oortman, newly married to wealthy merchant, Johannes Brandt, arrives at his luxurious home on the Herengracht, she is nervous but expectant: surely her life can only get better now that she has left Assendelft.

But Johannes is absent, and his sister Marin is less than welcoming. When her husband finally returns, things do not go as Nella had expected. He does, however, bring her a remarkable gift: a replica of their home in miniature. She engages the services of a miniaturist to craft items to furnish this amazing creation, but is disturbed by the accuracy of certain extra pieces, pieces she did not order.

As Nella becomes familiar with the household, it is soon apparent that neither people nor circumstances are what they first seem, and that the life she had expected, and perhaps even hoped, for is unlikely to be the one she will have. Before long, she discovers the shocking truth about her marriage, learns disturbing facts about her husband’s business dealings, surprising truths about other household members and about the elusive but seemingly prescient miniaturist.

Nella begins to realise that while there is abundant prosperity, there is very little tolerance in this Amsterdam “Where the pendulum swings from God to a guilder”. Within three months, this young innocent country girl has to draw on reserves she was unaware she had, along the way witnessing a drowning, a stabbing and a sexual act, attending a funeral, seeing a man condemned to death, bribing a prison guard, and handling the sale of a valuable commodity.

As she weaves a fictional world around real life characters, Burton also provides the reader with a wealth of information about late seventeenth century Amsterdam. Her extensive research is apparent in every paragraph. How interesting to imagine a time when sugar was rare enough to be a valuable commodity, and to actually view Nella’s cabinet house in the Rijksmuseum.

Burton also treats the reader to some marvelously evocative descriptive prose: “A spray of red pimples covers the second man’s forehead. He’s little more than a boy. God has been malicious with his paintbrush” and “The threads of Nella’s imagination begin to spool, embroidering conversations, patches of which it stitches loosely together” and “There is water everywhere she looks, lagoons as still as glass, patched with murk like a foxed mirror when the weak sun moves behind cloud” are just a few examples. This amazing debut novel is a brilliant read. 4.5 stars
Serena: A Novel
by Ron Rash
a brilliant novel (11/3/2014)
“…the work bell rang. The men left so quickly their cast-down forks and spoons seemed to retain a slight vibration, like pond water rippling after a splash”

Serena is the fourth novel by American author, Ron Rash. The mountains of North Carolina in the early 1930s were the scene of competing land grabs: timber getters like George Pemberton who were determined to make their fortunes clear-felling the slopes; miners like Harris who stripped the denuded land of its minerals; and the government, funded by wealthy patrons like Rockerfeller and Vanderbilt, committed to creating National Parks. Logging in this remote wilderness presented many hazards but the Depression ensured that labour was cheap and plentiful.

It is against this background that Rash sets the story of Serena, newly wed to Pemberton and intent on proving herself equal to any worker in this dangerous place. From the first she shows herself to be extremely capable, but also single-minded, calculating, fiercely possessive and completely ruthless. When she perceives a threat to her business or her marriage, she acts without hesitation, fear or favour. The story is told from three perspectives: George Pemberton, thoroughly enthralled by Serena; sixteen-year-old Rachel Harmon, mother of a son to Pemberton; and foreman Snipes, gauging the mood of his crew of sawyers and offering perceptive comments on their suspicions & superstitions.

Rash gives the reader an original plot, a story that ticks along steadily, eliciting occasional gasps at Serena’s despicable actions, until it builds to a gripping climax. His characters are multi-faceted; he includes many interesting historical facts and his love of the North Carolina landscape and the mountain dwellers is apparent in the wonderful descriptive prose: “The land’s angle became more severe, the light waning, streaked as if cut with scissors and braided to the ridge piece by piece” and “… the land increasingly mountainous, less inhabited, the occasional slant of pasture like green felt woven to a rougher fabric” are two examples.

Rash gives his young mother some insightful observations: “…what made losing someone you loved bearable was not remembering but forgetting. Forgetting the small things first, the smell of soap her mother had bathed with…the sound of her mother’s voice….the color of her hair……everything you forgot made that person less alive inside you until you could finally endure it” and “It struck her how eating was a comfort during a hard time because it reminded you that there had been other days, good days, when you’d eaten the same thing. Reminded you there were good days in life, when precious little else did”

Rash has once again produced a brilliant novel, and his fans will not be disappointed. It will be interesting to see what Hollywood does with this riveting tale.
Home: A Novel
by Marilynne Robinson
a stirring read (10/29/2014)
“You must forgive in order to understand. Until you forgive, you defend yourself against the possibility of understanding”

Home is the second book in the Gilead series by Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Marilynne Robinson, and is set in Gilead, Iowa at the same time as the first book. This book focusses on Reverend Robert Boughton (closest friend of Reverend John Ames), and his family. Thirty-eight-year-old Glory Boughton, with a failed engagement behind her, returns to Gilead to look after her ailing father, Robert. A letter arrives, and Glory worries about the effect it will have on her father: “…the note might really be from Jack, but upsetting somehow, written from a ward for the chronically vexatious, the terminally remiss”.

Eventually, her disreputable brother Jack, an unemployed alcoholic, returns home after twenty years of virtual silence. Her father is pleased to see this favoured child again, one who went from “a restless, distant, difficult boy” to what Jack himself admits: “….nothing but trouble…….I create a kind of displacement around myself as I pass through the world, which can fairly be called trouble”. Jack is not the only one with secrets in his past, and he and Glory form a bond. His reconnection with his godfather and namesake, Reverend John Ames does not proceed smoothly.

They think back on their youth in the family home: “Experience had taught them that truth has sharp edges and hard corners, and could be seriously at odds with kindness” and “…lying in that family meant only that the liar would appreciate discretion…..as a matter of courtesy they treated one another’s deceptions like truth, which was a different thing from deceiving, or being deceived”. Glory is less than pleased to be in Gilead and dreads the thought of spending the rest of her days there: “To have the past overrun its bounds this way and become present and possibly future, too – they all knew this was a thing to be regretted”

Robinson treats the reader to some marvellous descriptive prose: “Their father said if they could see as God can, in geological time, they would see it leap out of the ground and turn in the sun and spread it arms and bask in the joys of being an oak tree in Iowa”. She touches on the question of racial prejudice and also includes some hints about the life Lila led before Gilead, a subject expanded on in the third book in this series. While this novel is somewhat slow in places, it is a stirring read and the final pages will move many readers to tears. 4.5 stars
Border Songs
by Jim Lynch
Original and utterly delightful. (10/27/2014)
Border Songs is the second novel by American journalist and author, Jim Lynch. After training to join the Border Patrol in New Mexico eight months ago, Brandon Vanderkool is glad to be back home in the familiar northwest corner of his native Washington State. Brandon Vanderkool is NOT cool. Brandon is very tall, well-built, severely dyslexic and awkward around humans: never sure of what to say, mostly incapable of getting the joke, he relates much better to his father’s dairy cows, knows every bird and their call, and spends free time making unusual art.

But Brandon Vanderkool has something that makes him useful to Border Patrol: an innate ability to effortlessly sense what is out of place. He virtually trips over illegal aliens, would-be terrorists and drug smugglers. Soon enough, this draws the attention of the media and funding increases ensure more manpower and technology to protect the border from the Canadian threat. The drug and people smugglers escalate their efforts: locals react in various ways to intrusive technology and lucrative offers for safe passage across their land.

Lynch peoples his novel with a bunch of quirky characters: Brandon’s father, Norm is plagued by worries about his son, his increasingly demented wife, the half-completed yacht in his barn, his bad knee and the ill-health of his unfortunate cows; his across-the-border neighbour is a retired political sciences professor with MS who smokes pot, is busy reinventing common innovations and revels in shouting taunts across the ditch; the professor’s daughter is using her nursery experience to tend basement marijuana crops for the local pot kingpin, while fending off Brandon’s clumsy overtures.

There are farmers who have abandoned dairy for berries, invested in shit-to-power schemes, are opposed to the construction of a nearby Casino and share their opinions on Reader Boards out front of their farms. There is a mysterious masseuse who gathers gossip while sharing none about herself. Ducks are employed in an unusual manner. Brandon’s colleagues in the Border Patrol include a conscientious female trainer and a racist, chauvinist agent counting the days until his retirement. The threat of dairy terrorism, Minutemen, girl scouts, cheap stock feed, a bomb threat, a tunnel, an art show and Alzheimers all feature.

Brandon is a likeable character who is often a lot more insightful than people realise: “Reality is always more complicated than anybody says it is”. His interpretation of bird calls is both unique and charming. There are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments in this novel and Lynch also treats his readers to some marvellous descriptive prose: “He stared down at the ladies until their heavy eyelashes fluttered like hummingbird wings trying to lift them off the floor” and “…the birds spinning like ice skaters or stunt pilots before lining up side by side and carrying on in high, grating voices that sounded like glass marbles rubbing against one another” are just two examples. Original and utterly delightful. 4.5 stars
The Bone Clocks: A Novel
by David Mitchell
a brilliant novel (10/25/2014)
The Bone Clocks is the sixth novel by British author, David Mitchell. After an argument with her mother and an upsetting encounter with her unfaithful boyfriend, fifteen-year-old Holly Sykes intends to get as far from Gravesend as possible. But Holly is no ordinary teen, and a chance meeting with a strange old woman on a jetty leads to a promise with repercussions many years later.

The story is split into six parts with different narrators: a rebellious teen; a self-centred, self-serving young man; a British journalist hooked on the excitement of the Middle East; an arrogant writer with a guilty secret; an Horologist in his fortieth life; and an elderly grandmother. The narratives of those whose lives intersect with Holly’s relate the major events of her life in a roundabout way while, at the same time, telling a thrilling tale of opposing forces and the inevitable battle that ensues.

The tale is told over some six decades and jumps from small town England to a Swiss ski resort, Iraq, Hay, Columbia, Western Australia, Shanghai, Iceland, New York, Canada and Ireland. Mitchell touches on a myriad of subjects: teen angst, infatuation and true love, career/family balance, literary critics and book fairs, the curse of privilege, socially conscious pop idols, the world’s reliance on technology and the pervasiveness of the internet.

His characters comment on: ageing (It’s not just that you get old and your kids leave; it’s that the world zooms away and leaves you hankering for whatever decade you felt most comfy in”); religion (“..if you could reason with religious people, there wouldn’t be any religious people” and “Prayer may be a placebo for the disease of helplessness, but placebos can make you feel better”); and technological advances (“Some magic is normality you’re not yet used to”).

He gives them words of wisdom (“People are icebergs, with just a bit you can see and loads you can’t” and “Mum said I’d learn betrayals came in various shapes and sizes, but to betray someone’s dream is the unforgiveable one”) and some lovely descriptive prose (“The English Channel’s biro-blue; the sky’s the blue of snooker-chalk.”)

His characters are appealing and readers may find themselves wondering for some time just whose intentions are pure and whose are not; some develop in depth and integrity as the story progresses. Holly is easy to admire, resourceful and engaging; her use of the rolling pin is definitely a laugh-out-loud moment.

This is a wonderfully crafted novel, with mysterious happenings building the intrigue until things begin to fall into place with the fifth narrative. Fans of Mitchell’s earlier novels will delight in (and quite probably be excited by) the connections (characters, locations, themes) with this one. Once again, Mitchell gives the reader a brilliant novel and it will be interesting to see what he does next.

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