Announcing our Top 20 Books of 2022

Reviews by Cloggie Downunder

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The Keeper of Lost Causes
by Jussi Adler-Olsen
a brilliant start to the series and an excellent example of Danish Crime Fiction. (4/3/2017)
The Keeper of Lost Causes (also titled Mercy) is the first book in the Department Q series by Danish author Jussi Adler Olsen. It’s early 2007, and Homicide Detective Carl Morck has returned to duty. Some weeks earlier, a shooting at a murder scene at Amager left one of his colleagues dead, the other paralysed with spinal injuries. Carl may be an outstanding detective, but his lack of people skills is wearing thin on the Homicide Department of the Copenhagen Police Force. The solution comes in the form of his appointment as head of the newly formed (politically instigated) Department Q, which will handle nationwide “cases deserving special scrutiny”.

It looks like Carl will be doing all the work. Not that he cares: the shooting of his colleagues, still unsolved, has left him riddled with a deep-seated guilt and beset by an apathy he has never before known. A number of case files is delivered to his basement office, and after a cursory sorting of the folders, Carl settles back to examine the insides of his eyelids. But the assistant he has been assigned, a Syrian refugee who is meant to do cleaning and filing, seems to have other ideas. Assad’s enthusiasm isn’t exactly contagious, but soon enough, Carl finds himself intrigued by the case Assad has selected.

In early 2002, politician Merete Lynggaard disappeared from a ferry on her way to Berlin with her psychologically disabled (mute) younger brother, Uffe. While most believed she had drowned, no remains were ever found. Uffe was unable to shed light on her fate. Carl and Assad believe they are looking for a murder victim, but an alternate narrative that starts in 2002 and is intermittently inserted between chapters from Morck’s 2007 perspective lets the reader know otherwise.

Adler-Olsen gives the reader a riveting tale with an intricately woven plot and an exciting climax. His characters are multi-dimensional, and their dialogue is often a source of humour. The way Carl drops the occasional remark to point the Homicide crew in the right direction on their current cases is also fun. The mystery of the Amager shooting is not resolved and is one of several strands that provide potential material for further books (of which there are currently six). Assad is a delightful surprise whose inner workings will, no doubt, also be explored further. This is a brilliant start to the series and an excellent example of Danish Crime Fiction.
The Satanic Mechanic: A Tannie Maria Mystery
by Sally Andrew
A brilliant sequel! (3/30/2017)
“I was deciding whether to call Henk when the phone rang and it was him. That sort of thing happens a lot, you know. I think about something, and then there it is. It makes me wonder if my life is neatly woven, instead of the tangle it looks like. If I could just follow all the threads, maybe I’d see a nice pattern”.

The Satanic Mechanic is the second book in the Tannie Maria Mystery series by South African author, Sally Andrew. Slimkat Kabbo is the face of the Kuruman Bushman’s successful land claim case. With his peace-loving attitude (“Fighting can make you bitter. But sometimes it must be done. If you have to fight, then you must do so with soft hands and a heart full of forgiveness”), he is no boastful victor. So when he is poisoned right there in front Tannie Maria and the Klein Karoo Gazette’s intrepid investigative reporter, Jessie Mostert, and under the noses of the Oudtshoorn and Ladismith police, they are puzzled.

Would the vanquished in the land case, the Hardcore diamond miners and the Agribeest cattle company really take revenge in this manner? Or was someone else behind the harassment and death threats the Bushmen had received? Tannie Maria’s boyfriend, Detective Lieutenant Henk Kannemeyer doesn’t want Maria getting involved; after her recent kidnapping and near murder, he doesn’t want to risk losing her again. Tannie Maria dislikes being told what to do, but she has another problem with Henk, one of a more intimate nature, one that stems from her former husband’s abuse and needs a counsellor’s help.

The first one she sees puts her on a diet. Readers familiar with Tannie Maria know that food plays a big role in her life: “I took a mouthful of tart, and I closed my eyes and let the sweet warm brandy and cream sing down my throat to my belly”. A visit to the doctor has a different outcome, as well as some dietary advice: “’If you apply common sense you should be fine. Obvious stuff: exercise, eat healthy food, only eat when you're hungry.’ The problem is, I thought as I left his office, I am always hungry”. Eventually, she consults the Satanic Mechanic.

Sally Andrew gives the reader a murder mystery with an original plot, a twist or two and quite a few red herrings. She touches on some topical issues: PTSD, the plight of wildlife crossing roads, and the status of gays and lesbians certain African nations. She laces it with plenty of humour, fills it with wonderful food, and wraps the whole thing in some gorgeous descriptive prose: “The phone rang. It was Henk. His voice was warm and sweet like hot chocolate, and it made a smile run through my whole body” and “...they started on a beautiful Xhosa song. Some sang high, others low, with choruses answering each other. They moved in time to the music. The voices wove a hammock of sound that held me and rocked me” are examples.

Also: “Hattie’s fingers were running around her keypad like mice…” and “He was a small man who walked lightly on the ground. But he seemed very tall, as if his head was being pulled up to the stars” and “I picked up another letter on the pile, one that looked impatient to be opened”. Sentences like: “In the Karoo sky, there are so many stars it is hard to see the darkness” are sure to make readers want to visit the Klein Karoo.

Andrew’s characters are appealing, much more than one-dimensional, and occasionally quirky; their dialogue is natural and evokes the South African accent. If there is a flaw in this book, it’s that all those mouth-watering descriptions of food are bound to make the reader hungry. But what’s this? Twenty pages of recipes at the end! Mmmmm.

Sally Andrew’s second Tannie Maria Mystery is even better than the first. Readers who are unfamiliar with Tannie Maria would do well to read Recipes for Love and Murder before this book for two good reasons: firstly, many of the characters from Recipes appear in this book, and there is not a great deal of recap; secondly, the reader will be treated to double the reading pleasure. A brilliant sequel!
The Narrow Road to the Deep North
by Richard Flanagan
Profoundly moving. (2/24/2017)
“There was around him an exhausted emptiness, an impenetrable void cloaked this most famously collegial man, as if he already lived in another place – forever unravelling and refurling a limitless dream or an unceasing nightmare, it was hard to know – from which he would never escape. He was a lighthouse whose light could not be relit”

The Narrow Road to The Deep North is the sixth novel by award-winning Australian author, Richard Flanagan. Despite his humble beginnings in a remote Tasmanian village filled with “verandah-browed wooden cottages”, Dorrigo Evans is clever enough to get scholarships for high school and university. He leaves the locale where he used to “smell the damp bark and drying leaves and watch clans of green and red musk lorikeets chortling far above. He would drink in the birdsong of the wrens and the honeyeaters, the whipcrack call of the jo-wittys…”

By 1940, he is a promising young surgeon, engaged to Ella Lansbury, a girl from the right sort of family, when he joins the army. Stationed near Adelaide while awaiting dispatch overseas, Dorrigo’s chance encounter with his Uncle Keith’s young second wife, Any Mulvaney, results in a liaison he could neither have anticipated nor resisted.

A few years on, Dorrigo Evans is a Prisoner of War, in command of a thousand men charged with building the Burma Railway, where cruelty and death were unwelcome, but commonplace: “They had smoked to keep the dead out of their nostrils, they had joked to keep the dead from preying on their minds, they had eaten to remind themselves they were alive…”

Dorrigo is constantly wracked with feelings of inadequacy, but “He could do this, he told himself… He had no belief he could do it, but others believed he could do it. And if he believed in them believing in him, maybe he could hold onto himself”

The survivors return home to a life that feels alien: “He didn’t fit with his own life anymore, his own life was breaking down, and all that did fit – his job, his family – seemed to be coming apart”. Dorrigo goes through the motions, marries, has three children and “Occasionally, he felt something within him angry and defiant, but he was weary in a way he had never known, and it seemed far easier to allow his life to be arranged by a much broader general will than by his own individual, irrational and no doubt misplaced terrors”

A celebrated surgeon and a war hero, Dorrigo despises the society of which he is part: “He did not believe in virtue. Virtue was vanity dressed up and waiting for applause”. From those who have been there, he sometimes hears words of wisdom: “Adversity brings out the best in us, the podgy War Graves Commission officer sitting next to him had said… It’s the everyday living that does us in”

Using multiple narrators, Flanagan examines the well-known cruelty of the Japanese captors from both sides. He also exposes the staggeringly selfish attitudes of POW officers, the sometimes secretive, sometimes selfish and sometimes extraordinarily generous behaviour of enlisted men, and also the postwar politics of punishment. With descriptive prose that is exquisite, it is no wonder that this novel is a winner of several awards and a nominee for many more. Profoundly moving.
Heartless
by Marissa Meyer
a brilliant read (1/29/2017)
Heartless is the first stand-alone fantasy novel by American author, Marissa Meyer. Lady Catherine Pinkerton, daughter of the Marquess of Rock Turtle Cove, has one fervent desire: to open her own bakery in the Main Street of the Kingdom of Hearts. But her ambitious mother has other ideas. Determined that her daughter will draw the King’s attention, the Marchioness ensures that Cath is the only one dressed in red at the King’s Black and White Ball. And this is where Cath meets the man of her dreams (literally), but it’s not the King.

Every good story needs a character to despise, but did you ever wonder how the Queen of Hearts in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland got to be so imperious, so cranky, so very despicable? Marissa Meyer has given us her story. And what a tale it is! This prequel has all the essential Alice elements: the Cheshire Cat, the Mad Hatter, the White Rabbit, the March Hare, the King of Hearts, the Mock Turtle, the dreaded Jabberwock, as well as borrowing from other fiction and introducing brand new characters.

Meyer gives the reader an ingenious plot with a few twists and an exciting climax. There is plenty of humour which takes the form of witty dialogue, a good dose of irony, a generous helping of puns and lots of other word play, including clever rhymes. There’s magic and an abundance of echoes of the original Alice. And there are moments that will cause a lump in the throat and maybe even a tear or two. This is a brilliant read and readers will wonder to what Meyer will turn her considerable talents next. Recommended.
A Spool of Blue Thread
by Anne Tyler
funny, moving, thought-provoking and, again, quite brilliant (1/28/2017)
“There was nothing remarkable about the Whitshanks. None of them was famous. None of them could claim exceptional intelligence. And in looks, they were no more than average…. But like most families, they imagined they were special. They took great pride, for instance, in their fix-it skills… all of them were convinced that they had better taste than the rest of the world…disappointments seemed to escape the family’s notice, though. That was another of their quirks: they had a talent for pretending that everything was fine”

A Spool of Blue Thread is the twentieth adult novel by award-winning American author, Anne Tyler. The Whitshank House on Bouton Rd, lovingly, carefully and painstakingly built by Junior Whitshank for Mr. Ernest Brill, was eventually home to Junior, Linnie Mae and their children, Merrick and Redcliffe. Later, Red and Abby brought up their four, Amanda, Jeannie, Denny and Stem, within its walls. It was built for a family and stood the test of time. And here is where the family gathers when Red and Abby begin to cope less well than they always did.

The issue of how to manage ageing parents is something common to most families; after their first solution fails, another is decided upon, but frictions arise between siblings when the (sort of) black sheep turns up to help. Old jealousies and frustrations surface, and in the course of events, certain secrets are revealed. Tyler has a singular talent for taking ordinary people doing ordinary things and keeping the reader enthralled and endeared. Her pace is sedate, her descriptive prose, gorgeous, her dialogue, realistic.

The narrative is split into four parts: the first tells, from multiple perspectives, of present day events in the Whitshank family, with plenty of references to the immediate (and less immediate) past; the second is from Abby’s viewpoint, and details the day she fell in love with Red; the third gives Junior’s point of view of events surrounding his early encounters with Linnie Mae and the start of their family life; the last, again from several perspectives, describes the present-day leave-taking from the Bouton Rd house.

Another novel that is characteristically Anne Tyler: funny, moving, thought-provoking and, again, quite brilliant.
The Nanny Diaries: A Novel
by Emma McLaughlin, Nicola Kraus
not all that good (1/14/2017)
The Nany Diaries is the first book in the Nanny series by American authors and ex-nannies, Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus. We start with a nanny called Nanny. Then we have parents Mr X and Mrs X, and their four-year-old son, Grayer. And a potential boyfriend who never gets beyond HH (=Harvard Hottie). So, ignore the silly names, and wade through the interview experiences, the ridiculous demands of these ultra-rich socialites and their first-world problems, and the brand name soup, and there’s actually a reasonable story. Which is that the nanny often has a much better relationship with the children than either of the parents do. And that all that money doesn’t ensure a stable marriage or a happy childhood.

Nanny lacks backbone (but not self-pity) and makes quite a few unwise decisions. Nonetheless, her dedication to her four-year-old charge is genuine. The Xes are, no doubt, an amalgamation of the worst parents the authors have encountered: pretentious, shallow and selfish. This tale gives the reader some laughs, some head-shaking and some gasps at the behaviour of the rich. Is it entertaining enough that readers will want to read the sequel? Doubtful.
Into the Darkest Corner: A Novel
by Elizabeth Haynes
a brilliant debut novel (1/12/2017)
Into The Darkest Corner is the first novel by British author, Elizabeth Haynes. In 2003, personnel manager Catherine Bailey is confident and carefree, with a full but somewhat risky social life that involves copious drinking and sexual promiscuity. In 2007, Cathy Bailey is frightened and withdrawn, crippled by the OCD rituals she follows to keep her emotions under control, to keep the fear and panic at bay.

In October 2003, Cathy meets a somewhat mysterious but totally gorgeous man named Lee. He’s closed-mouthed about his job, but charms her friends, and as she gets involved with this enigmatic figure, a man who can be loving and vulnerable, but also rough and controlling, her life changes in major ways.

The gripping tale is told in an alternating narrative that switches between the two timeframes: dates are clearly marked so that it is easy to distinguish the “when” of events. There are also two court transcripts that explain certain incidents. Haynes gives the reader a riveting plot with a twist or two, several nail-biting climaxes and some bombshell revelations that will have them gasping.

The story touches on stalking, PTSD, sexual assault, domestic violence, and the devastating effects of those skilled in manipulation and psychological terror. OCD is very realistically described. It is impossible not to feel empathy with the main character, despite her occasional unwise choices, and impossible not to cheer her on as she gains control of her life. This brilliant debut novel is a page-turner with a chilling ending.
The Husband's Secret
by Liane Moriarty
as well as being intriguing and thought-provoking, it is also humorous (12/14/2016)
The Husband’s Secret is the fifth adult novel by Australian author, Liane Moriarty. It is early evening on the Monday before Easter, 2012. In Sydney, widowed secretary of St Angela’s Catholic Primary School, Rachel Crowley, still grieving the daughter she lost nearly thirty years ago, is dismayed to learn that her son Rob, his wife Lauren and her dear little grandson, Jacob will be moving to New York.

Cecilia Fitzpatrick, Tupperware agent and busy school mum with three daughters at St Angela’s, accidentally comes across a letter, addressed to her, from her husband, John-Paul (currently in Chicago for work), in a sealed envelope, intriguingly labelled “to be opened only in the event of my death”. In Melbourne, happily married Tess O’Leary, mother of Liam, is stunned when her husband, Will and her cousin and best friend, Felicity tell her that they have fallen in love with each other.

Over the next six days, there will be unimaginable changes in each of their lives, lives that will intersect to culminate in a dramatic climax. As Cecilia tries to resist the temptation to open the letter (“She considered tearing it open right that second, before she had time to think about it, like the way she sometimes (not very often) shoved the last biscuit or chocolate in her mouth, before her conscience had time to catch up with her greed”), Moriarty tantalises the reader with several possibilities before the contents are eventually revealed.

Cecilia had lately been wishing for a bit of excitement in her ordinary life: the admonition: “be careful what you wish for…” was once again upheld. Moriarty once again gives the reader characters that are easy to identify with, leading their fairly ordinary lives in a setting that is reassuringly familiar. None, however, is quite what they first appear; each has their faults and imperfections, and everyone has a secret (or two): some are mundane, some are funny, some will leave the reader gasping.

Moriarty is not afraid to tackle a dark subject and puts her characters into situations that will have the reader pondering, long after the last page is turned, on how they themselves would react when faced with such a dilemma. Events and circumstances in her characters’ lives emphasise that, in life, nothing is black and white. Shame, pride, vanity, grief, fear, guilt and revenge all variously dictate the behaviour of the characters; tragedy, irony, coincidence and circumstance also play a part.

Moriarty gives the reader some marvellously descriptive prose: “She didn’t feel angry yet. Not really. But she could feel the possibility of a fury worse than anything she’d ever experienced, a simmering vat of anger that could explode like a fireball, destroying everything in its vicinity”, also “A steady stream of suggestions ran silently through her head like those snippets of news that run along the bottom of the TV on CNN” and “It was like fishing. It took silence and patience. (Or so she’d heard. Cecilia would rather hammer nails into her forehead than go fishing.)”.

Each book by Liane Moriarty seems to surpass the last and this one is no exception. This is a brilliant read: as well as being intriguing and thought-provoking, it is also humorous (often blackly so) and quite moving. Readers will look forward to Moriarty’s next title, Big Little Lies.
Big Little Lies
by Liane Moriarty
a brilliant read (12/14/2016)
“The Blonde Bobs rule the school. If you want to be on the P&C you have to have a blonde bob…..They’re like Mum Prefects, they feel very strongly about their roles as school mums. It’s like their religion. They’re fundamentalist mothers”

Big Little Lies is the sixth novel by Australian author, Liane Moriarty. The Pirriwee Peninsula on Sydney’s Northern Beaches is home to a diverse range of people, many of whom have children at the Pirriwee Public School and so are present at the Annual Trivia Night Fundraiser. But this year, one of those parents ends up dead. This one, intriguing fact is presented in the first chapter, after which the narrative jumps back six months to trace the sequence of events that led to the tragedy.

Moriarty uses three narrators, each of whom has children starting in Kindergarten: Madeline, confident, outgoing and never averse to voicing her outrage at the smallest injustice; Jane, a single mum with a dark secret in her past; and Celeste, rich and beautiful, and married to a seemingly perfect man. Other perspectives are presented in the form of quotes (some quite perceptive, some decidedly frivolous) recorded after the event by a journalist, from parents and teachers present on the night.

Moriarty gives the reader an original plot with a twist that only the most astute reader will predict. The setting is commonplace and easily recognisable and Moriarty captures the feel of the school situation perfectly. The dialogue is familiar from any café or school playground and the characters are real and flawed; none is wholly good or completely evil. Several characters will surprise at the climax, and the reader may even feel some sympathy for the abuser. Readers are likely to find themselves hoping none of the narrators is the Trivia Night victim.

Moriarty touches on some topical themes as well as some age-old topics: domestic violence; body image; the dangers of a one-night-stand; bullying; victim mentality; erotic asphyxiation; infidelity; and bizarre internet auctions. She manages to include a lost plush toy, a Kindy Mothers race, head lice (of course!), a petition, a twisted ankle, a French nanny, little bullies and big bullies, an ex-husband, a gorgeous barista, a profusion of Elvises and Audrey Hepburns and plenty of laugh-out-loud moments.

Moriarty gives her characters both wise words and amusing observations: “Then, as she hit her late thirties, her body said: OK, you don’t believe in PMT? I’ll show you PMT. Get a load of this, bitch” and “Ex-husbands should live in different suburbs. They should send their children to different schools. There should be legislation …..”. Also “She looked straight ahead at the briskly working windshield wipers. The windscreen was just like never-ending cycles of her mind. Confusion. Clear. Confusion. Clear. Confusion. Clear.” and “Jane saw that Madeline’s feelings about Jane’s baking were similar to Jane’s feelings about Madeline’s accessories: confused admiration for an exotic sort of behaviour”

Fans of The Husband’s Secret will not be disappointed with Big Little Lies. Readers who can ignore the misspelling of peninsula throughout the text will agree that this is, once again, a brilliant read.
The Red House: A Novel
by Mark Haddon
enjoyable and thought-provoking. (12/10/2016)
The Red House is the third adult novel by British poet and author, Mark Haddon. A week after burying their mother, Angela’s brother Richard, with whom she has had minimal contact for fifteen years, offers to take both their families on holiday. Five weeks later, Dominic, Angela and their three children are on the train to Hay-on-Wye; from Edinburgh, Richard, his wife of six months and his step-daughter are in his Mercedes headed for the same destination: a week in April in a rented house in Herefordshire.

Neither couple expects this to be a jolly family get-together, but they intend to make the best of it. Four adults, three teens and an eight-year-old are gathered in close quarters, all having issues, worries or problems that are slowly revealed to a greater or lesser audience. In between (or sometimes during) meals, walks, excursions, activities and leisure, there are confessions, confrontations, accusations, revelations, tantrums and tears.

And what a feast of emotions and attitudes Haddon heaps on his characters: resentment at carrying the burden of elder care; confusion over sexual orientation; insecurity about a partner’s true feelings; enduring grief over a stillborn baby; worry over possible professional misconduct charges; teenage lust; and guilt, lots of guilt, over an extra-marital affair, over previous promiscuity, over bullying, over poor parenting.

While the adults and teens all have their very human flaws, and their words and actions are often easy to comprehend, if not always excuse, it is eight-year-old Benjy, earnest, thoughtful and wholly good, who cannot fail to both tug at the heartstrings and to delight in equal measure.

Even though nothing terribly dramatic happens over the week, and the pace of the story is quite sedate, by Friday, everyone’s lives have been changed to some extent. There are rejected kisses, a sprained ankle, hypothermia from exposure, a ghost, a stuffed owl, canoeing, bookshops, makeshift swords, desperate texts, and unreliable memories.

Haddon establishes the era with occasional, almost haphazard passages of current events, movies, music, crazes and world affairs; he treats his readers to some gorgeous descriptive prose: “A great see-saw of light balanced on the fulcrum of Black Hill, the sun rising on one end, the other end sweeping down the flank of Offa’s Dyke and switching the colours on as it went”. This is a novel somewhat reminiscent of those by David Nicholls, enjoyable and thought-provoking.
The Heart of Henry Quantum
by Pepper Harding
could have been a great novel (11/28/2016)
3.5 stars
The Heart of Henry Quantum is the first book by an American author who writes under the pseudonym, Pepper Harding. Four years ago, Henry Quantum’s brief but intense extra-marital affair with (wife and mother of two) Daisy Hillman, ended. Now, two days before Christmas, Henry sets out to buy a Christmas gift for Margaret, his wife of almost fourteen years, something that has become imperative as the proximity of the holiday dawns on him.

As Henry walks down San Francisco’s city streets in the direction of Macy’s with plans to purchase a bottle of Chanel No 5, he is regularly distracted. Then he runs into Daisy. It’s a meeting that turns his day upside down, especially when she reveals what has happened since they last met. Meanwhile, Margaret has set off to meet her lover out at Marin….

This novel is beautifully written and should have been a delightful read. Unfortunately, rather than being instantly endearing, Henry comes across as flakey and rather frustrating. It soon becomes apparent how and why his marriage with Margaret has stalled and staled. There is plenty of philosophising from Henry, to be expected given his philosophy/creative writing double major in college, as well as a good deal of rationalisation from Margaret.

The travelogue of San Francisco, the mention of streets and landmarks, which will certainly appeal to readers familiar with the city, is likely to fall flat with readers who have never been there. That, and the sweet ending fail to redeem what could have been a great novel.
Signs Preceding the End of the World
by Yuri Herrera, Lisa Dillman (translator)
short but powerful (11/27/2016)
4.5 stars
Signs Preceding the End of the World is the first novella by award-winning Mexican author, Yuri Herrera, to be translated into English. Because of her telephone, Makina is an integral part of communications in The Little Town. “Sometimes, more and more these days, they called from the North: these were the ones who’d often already forgotten the local lingo, so she responded to them in their own new tongue. Makina spoke all three, and knew how to keep quiet in all three, too”. Her mother Cora has reluctantly sent her to cross the river (the border) to take a message to her brother.

Her mother’s influence goes only so far. Mr Double U will facilitate her crossing, but when Makina goes to Mr Aitch for help: “Mr Aitch smiled, with all the artlessness of a snake disguised as a man coiling around your legs…..Here came the hustle. Mr. Aitch was the type who couldn’t see a mule without wanting a ride”. She is to carry a parcel for him.

Nine short but powerful chapters deal with Makina’s crossing, her delivery of the parcel and her search for her brother. In view of the latest US election results, this is an extremely topical story. This volume also features a note from the translator, Lisa Dillman, which is interesting as it explores the challenges in conveying intended meaning when translating.
A Place Called Winter
by Patrick Gale
incredibly moving and completely captivating. (11/19/2016)
“When a thing has always been forbidden and must live in darkness and silence, it’s hard to know how it might be, if allowed to thrive.”

A Place Called Winter is the sixteenth novel by British author, Patrick Gale. In early 20th century England, shy and stuttering Harry Cane, nurturing older brother to the infinitely more confident Jack, is rather surprised to find himself married to Winnie, and before long, a father to Phyllis. Even more surprising, the obsessive infatuation for another that forces him to abandon his family, England and the bulk of his wealth for the hardship, privation and loneliness of the Canadian prairielands. Harry is befriended on the ship by a strangely charismatic man, a Dane named Troels Munck, who commandeers his life and steers him to a land plot near the remote Saskatchewan town of Winter.

The narrative alternates between two time periods: Harry’s life after he leaves a mental asylum and joins the therapeutic community run by the unconventional Dr Gideon Ormshaw at Bethel; and the events of his life from when his father died, events that led up to his admission to the asylum. Based on story of his own great-grandfather’s life, Gale’s story portrays the reality of pioneering in the Canadian wilderness. It also touches on accepted therapies for mental illness at the time and the dangers of being a homosexual in this era. Gale has a marvellous talent for making the reader feel true empathy for his main character: it is virtually impossible not to feel Harry’s heartache, his anxiety, his anger and his fear, but also his love.

Gale’s descriptive prose is a pleasure to read: “She looked after the geese and ducks and was an excellent shot, regularly bagging wild duck…. She also shot rabbit and the occasional hare. These she would pluck or skin herself in an efficient fury all the more self-righteous for being unapplauded and unregarded” and “As Troels came to stand beside him, Harry smelt the musk of his sweat and something else, something threatening, if threat had a smell” and “There were stars, a seamless, spangled fishnet of them from horizon to horizon, coldly lighting the land and lending the farm buildings, outlined sharply against them, an eerie loveliness” are just a few examples.

Fans of Gale’s work will not be disappointed, and newcomers to his work will want to seek out more of it. This beautifully written novel is incredibly moving and completely captivating.
With thanks to Hachette and The Reading Room for this copy to read and review.
The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles
by Katherine Pancol
Funny, moving and highly entertaining (11/13/2016)
The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles is the first novel in the Joséphine series by French author, Katherine Pancol. When she discovers her unemployed husband Antoine (call me Tonio) is having an affair with his manicurist, Joséphine Cortès kicks him out of their Paris apartment and resolves to somehow manage, with two daughters, on her own. Her meagre salary at the CNRS as a 12th Century historian will need to be supplemented; luckily, her brother-in-law, Philippe Dupin offers her some translation work.

When Antoine and his mistress, Mylène desert Paris to run a crocodile farm in Kenya, Joséphine knows her daughters’ survival is dependent on her: 10-year-old Zoé can still be reassured, but 14-year-old Hortense is becoming a wilful handful. And the bank manager has a nasty surprise for Joséphine. Desperation and a sense of filial loyalty see her agreeing to a dubious deal with her glamorous (and manipulative) sister, Iris: Jo will write a novel set in 12th Century France; Iris will relish doing the publicity and taking the credit; she’ll funnel the fees to Jo.

Pancol’s plot is wholly credible; it has a few twists and turns to keep things interesting as some two years of Joséphine’s life are detailed against a backdrop of other family and neighbourhood dramas: an eviction, a secret Royal baby, a long-standing unrequited love, a black-sheep twin, repressed memories, internet dating, lovers, plenty of gossip, mistresses, revealing YouTube clips, fake designer bags, hungry crocodiles, failing marriages, and a longed-for heir.

Pancol gives the reader a diverse cast of characters, none perfect, all flawed, all very human, with their strengths and weaknesses, none wholly good or bad: a few are easy to despise; others draw the reader’s sympathy; insecure and reticent, Joséphine will, at first, frustrate, as we wait and hope for her to lose her naiveté and develop some backbone. And everyone has secrets they’re not telling.

This first book (of three so far) is translated from the original French by William Rodarmor and Helen Dickinson. Readers who enjoy this novel will be pleased to know that the second book, The Slow Waltz of Turtles is also available in English. Funny, moving and highly entertaining, this is a very enjoyable read.
The Girl in Green
by Derek B. Miller
exciting, insightful and entertaining: another brilliant read. (11/11/2016)
The Girl in Green is the second novel by American novelist and international policy specialist, Derek B. Miller. It’s late March 1991, and United States Army Private Arwood Hobbes is at the northern edge of Checkpoint Zulu, “maintaining a vigilant perimeter” in Iraq’s newly-brokered peace, when a British journalist from the Times wanders up.

Thomas Benton is a seasoned war correspondent who’s after the story from a local perspective. With some encouragement from Arwood, he walks toward nearby Samawah, intent on interviews and ice cream. A surprise attack sees Hobbes and Benton trying to rescue a villager, “the girl in green”, but the situation somehow ends badly, leading to their removal from the area and an eventual “other-than-honourable” discharge for Hobbes.

Fast forward twenty-two years, when a lingering feeling of guilt and a YouTube clip see Hobbes and Benton once again trying to rescue “the girl in green”. Is it human design or divine intervention that sees the original players of the drama and its aftermath gathered together again? Their mission is surely insane and bound to fail!

As with Norwegian By Night, Miller gives the reader an original plot with plenty of action, a twist or two, and a thrilling climax. Generous doses of tension are relieved by the banter between the characters, which is often blackly funny. Miller’s characters are wholly believable and, for all their quirks and very human flaws, especially appealing.

Miller’s considerable personal experience in both conflict zones and policy making is apparent on every page and he raises several thought provoking topics, including the intricate coordination and extensive diplomatic skills required in hostage negotiations, the crazy Catch 22 in the Department of Veteran Affairs that exists for veterans needing psychological counselling, the failure of foreign organisations to become familiar with the language, politics and customs of the countries they are purporting to aid, and the fate of national staff of NGOs when their employers withdraw due to escalating hostilities.

Miller gives the reader a novel that is topical and highly relevant in today’s world. Fans of Norwegian By Night will not be disappointed with Miller’s latest literary foray and will be hoping for more from this talented author soon. The Girl in Green is exciting, insightful and entertaining: another brilliant read.
Small Great Things
by Jodi Picoult
Moving and thought-provoking (10/24/2016)
“What if the puzzle of the world was a shape you didn’t fit into? And the only way to survive was to mutilate yourself, carve away your corners, sand yourself down, modify yourself to fit?”

Small Great Things is the 22nd adult novel by American author, Jodi Picoult. Ruth Jeffries is an experienced neonatal nurse, working in the Labour and Delivery suite at Mercy-West Haven Hospital in Connecticut. Having performed her usual checks on baby Davis Bauer, she is shocked to be told she may not have any further contact with him. Turk Bauer is a White Supremacist and determined that no black nurse is going to touch his child.

Notwithstanding the directive, some time later Ruth finds herself faced with a dilemma when Davis stops breathing. Despite emergency intervention, Davis dies and Turk is convinced that Ruth is responsible. When Ruth is arrested, it is Public Defender Kennedy McQuarrie who represents her for the arraignment, and helps her seventeen-year-old son organise bail. Seeing the opportunity to gain experience, Kennedy asks to be assigned to Ruth’s case, a case that would normally go to someone more experienced.

Picoult uses three narrators: Ruth, Turk and Kennedy give the perspective of the black defendant, the White Supremacist and the privileged white lawyer who believes herself impartial to race. Characters that begin as somewhat stereotypical soon develop a depth that may surprise. Likewise, the plot that seems to be headed to a fairly predictable conclusion develops a few interesting twists. Drama and tension are relieved by the delightfully funny banter between Kennedy and her family.

This is a story that is packed with emotion: sorrow and grief, love and hate, guilt and shame, all guarantee some lump-in-the throat moments. Words of wisdom and insightful observations are a feature: “It is amazing how you can look in a mirror your whole life and think you are seeing yourself clearly. And then one day, you peel off a filmy gray layer of hypocrisy, and you realize that you’ve never truly seen yourself at all”

Picoult also gives the reader some marvellous descriptive prose: “Turk Bauer makes me think of a power line that’s snapped during a storm, and lies across the road just waiting for something to brush against it so it can shoot sparks” and “We passed a few women in the kitchen, who were bouncing from fridge to cabinets and back like popcorn kernels on a hot griddle, who were exploding one at a time with commands: Get the plates! Don’t forget the ice cream!” are examples.

Of course, only a person of colour may judge if Picoult’s portrayal of a black woman is accurate, and, while many will criticise this white author, with her privileged upbringing and education, for having the audacity to present a black person’s perspective, her extensive research, as mentioned in the author’s note, is apparent in every paragraph.

Racism is a big topic to tackle, so if an author of Picoult’s talent and reputation can make even a few more people truly aware of it, and cause them to honestly examine their own attitude towards it, then this book is worthy of praise. Moving and thought-provoking, Picoult’s latest offering is another brilliant read.
This Must Be the Place: A novel
by Maggie O'Farrell
an unadulterated pleasure to read. (10/10/2016)
“She wasn’t going to look at him again, no, she wasn’t….. Then she did look and the same sensations hit again, like a row of dominoes toppling into each other: the towering sense of recognition, the disbelief that she doesn’t somehow know him, the ridiculousness that they do not know each other, the impossibility of them not seeing each other again”

This Must Be The Place is the seventh novel by British author, Maggie O’Farrell. Claudette Wells is Daniel Sullivan’s second wife. Even after several years of living together in a remote corner of Donegal, and fathering two children with her, he still finds it hard to believe that this eccentric, occasionally crazy, reclusive and beautiful ex-film star ever agreed to marry him. Later, he will remember this, and wonder what possessed him to put all that at risk. But now, a chance snippet of a radio broadcast, heard on the way to the train, sets him on a path to his past.

Daniel heads off to New York, to his (not at all beloved) father’s 90th birthday party, makes an unplanned detour to California see the son and daughter from whom he has been kept for nine years by a vindictive ex-wife, then detours again to Sussex. What he learns there has such a profound effect on him, it threatens to derail the best thing in his life.

O’Farrell has done it again! This extended family, this cast of characters, they pull the reader in. She draws each of them so well, with all their flaws and foibles, that the reader cannot help but find them appealing, hoping that things will turn out okay for them, laughing with them when they do and shedding a tear or two when they don’t.

The story is told by many different characters: the perspective of some is given numerous times; others share their perceptions only once; conveniently, each chapter is clearly marked with the character and the time period; as well as contributing to the main story, these alternate views give vignettes of other, associated lives; most are conventional first-person or third-person narratives, but there is a second-person one, one with footnotes, a transcript of an interview, and even an auction catalogue with images; the chapter headings are phrases lifted from the text therein, producing a tiny resonance when they are read in context.

O’Farrell’s descriptive prose is wonderfully evocative: “An amount of time later – he isn’t sure exactly how much – Daniel is walking in through the gates of the cemetery. He comes here at least once a day. It gives him an aim, a kind of routine. He makes his way along the gravelled path, letting his eye rest on the hundreds and hundreds of gravestones, watching the way they pull themselves into diagonal columns as he passes, then unpeel themselves, then line up again. An endless process of arrangement and disarrangement” is one example.

“He thinks of his grief over his sister as an entity that is horribly and painfully attached to him, the way a jellyfish might adhere to your skin or a goitre or an abscess. He pictures it as viscid, amorphous, spiked, hideous to behold. He finds it unbelievable that no one else can see it. Don’t mind that, he would say, it’s just my grief. Please ignore it and carry on with what you were saying” is another example.

Fans of O’Farrell’s earlier novels will not be disappointed. Readers new to her work are sure to seek out her backlist. Yet another O’Farrell novel that is an unadulterated pleasure to read.
Dear Mr. M
by Herman Koch
A brilliant read! (9/25/2016)
“It’s not something that can simply be turned on and off, this constant observing of superabundant detail; he is a writer, he tells himself, but the vacuuming up of details is purely obsessive. Often, after a day in the city, or a meal in a crowded restaurant, he comes home exhausted by all those faces and their irregularities.”

Dear Mr M is the eighth novel by Dutch actor, television and radio producer, newspaper columnist and author, Herman Koch, and the third to be translated into English. “Dear Mr M” is the salutation that begins a long letter to the ageing and formerly best-selling author who has moved into a flat in Amsterdam, from the younger man who lives in the flat below. Mr M’s bestseller was a thriller about a high school history teacher who was murdered by two of his students after having an affair with one of them. It was based on actual events that occurred at Terhofstede in late December some forty years previous.

In real life, police never recovered the teacher’s body, the teenagers protested their innocence, and much of actually happened was unknown. M did what authors do best, and filled in the gaps with his imagination. But it seems the man writing to M knows the story much more intimately: wouldn’t M like to know what really happened?

The story is split between the present day and that eventful year forty years ago The first person narrative by Mr M’s downstairs neighbour is supplemented by third person narratives from the perspective of Mr M, his young wife, one of the students involved and the teacher. Koch’s characters are multi-faceted: few are quite what they first appear to be, none is entirely blameless and all possess some very human flaws.

Koch gives the reader highly original plot with plenty of twists, back-flips, red herrings and a conclusion that will leave the reader gasping; he manages to include a fist fight, book signings, a bit of stalking, and the making of home movies. There is quite a bit of satire, some irony and plenty of humour, some of which is rather black, some tongue-in-cheek, starting with the disclaimer: "Anyone who thinks he recognises himself or others in one or more characters in this book is probably right. Amsterdam is a real city in the Netherlands"

This novel is cleverly crafted to keep the reader constantly wondering about the truth; this keeps the pages turning as the facts about what happened at Terhofstede, and what led up to it, are gradually revealed. Koch’s commentary on authors, both best-selling and mediocre, on publishers, on librarians, on interviews and author events, is accorded authenticity from his obvious personal experience. Flawlessly translated from the original Dutch by Sam Garrett, this novel is Koch’s best yet. A brilliant read!
Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End
by Atul Gawande
Recommended (9/21/2016)
Being Mortal is the fourth book by American surgeon and author, Atul Gawande. Early on in his book, he tells us :“…the purpose of medical schooling was to teach how to save lives, not how to tend to their demise” and that “I knew theoretically that my patients could die, of course, but every actual instance seemed like a violation, as if the rules I thought we were playing by were broken. I don’t know what game I thought this was, but in it we always won”.

But don’t get the wrong idea: this is not a book about dying, so much, as a book that looks at how the latter hours, days, weeks, months or even years of life can be improved. As we get older, and usually frailer (because there is no “…automatic defrailer…” p44 available to us), we need to rethink where the emphasis should lie: “…our most cruel failure in how we treat the sick and the aged is the failure to recognise that they have priorities beyond merely being safe and living longer…”

“We end up with institutions that address any number of societal goals – from freeing up hospital beds to taking burdens off families’ hands to coping with poverty among the elderly – but never the goal that matters to the people who reside in them: how to make life worth living when we’re weak and frail and can’t fend for ourselves”. Gawande’s wife’s grandmother, when institutionalised, remarked: “She felt incarcerated, like she was in prison for being old”

Gawande backs up his ideas with plenty of data that is both fascinating and revealing. And while an information dump could be boring, he illustrates all this with the results of studies and anecdotes about real people. It doesn’t get much more personal than the experience of his own father’s decline.

“Our responsibility, in medicine, is to deal with human beings as they are. People die only once. They have no experience to draw on. They need doctors and nurses who are willing to have the hard discussions and say what they have seen, who will help people prepare for what is to come…”

While many practitioners of palliative care will be familiar with what Gawande says, this book should be compulsory reading for most health care professionals. Oncologists, gerontologists, surgeons and intensivists (and their patients!) in particular would benefit from reading this book from cover to cover; those of us with ageing or debilitated family members, or those wanting to plan for their own eventual decline, would also find this book interesting and useful.

He concludes: “We’ve been wrong about what our job is in medicine. We think our job is to ensure health and survival. But really it is larger than that. It is to enable well-being. And well-being is about the reasons one wishes to be alive. Those reasons matter not just at the end of life, or when debility comes, but all along the way. Whenever serious sickness or injury strikes and your body or mind breaks down, the vital questions are the same: What is your understanding of the situation and its potential outcomes? What are your fears and what are your hopes? What are the trade-offs you are willing to make and not willing to make? And what is the course of action that best serves this understanding?” Recommended.
Darktown
by Thomas Mullen
Gritty and informative, this is a brilliant historical page-turner (9/20/2016)
“There was a lot that Rake was learning about his new occupation. He had survived against steep odds for years in Europe as an advance scout, had been alone for long stretches and had wisely figured the difference between threats and opportunities, collaborators and spies. Back home in Atlanta, however, he was finding the moral territory more difficult to chart than he’d expected”

Darktown is the fourth novel by American author, Thomas Mullen. In 1948, with a Negro population probably in excess of 115,000, Atlanta, Georgia had eight Negro police officers. Their powers of arrest were markedly fewer than those of white police officers, they were not issued with patrol cars, and they were quartered in the basement of a YMCA building. These startling facts underpin Thomas Mullen’s story of the murder of a young black woman and the black officers determined to find her killer.

Negro Officer Lucius Boggs is with his partner, Negro Officer Thomas Smith when they witness a Buick driven by a white man in knock over a light pole. They note a black female passenger, and give chase on foot when the driver leaves the scene. They observe him hitting her before she escapes from the car. Days later, they find her body in a pile of refuse. Boggs is no detective: his duties consist of walking his beat; but he is determined that her death will not go unpunished.

There is no love lost between the white officers and the Negro officers: it doesn’t help that the black cops have to call in white cops to make white arrests. When Boggs and Smith call for assistance in the traffic case, Dunlow and Rakestraw’s cruiser is slow to appear. Dunlow, old school and patently racist, ignores Boggs and Smith, and lets the driver off lightly; his rookie partner is more inclined to value their input.

Mullen follows known facts about the first Atlanta eight fairly closely in his tale, and the mention of actual historical figures gives the story authenticity. Each narrative, be it from the perspective of a fearful black sharecropper, an ageing white racist cop, a six-year-old negro boy, a white rookie, a back madam or a rookie negro police officer, has a genuine feel. He conveys the Atlanta of the immediate pre-civil rights era with consummate ease.

The characters are realistic: none of these black policemen is entirely blameless; even the most racist white officers have some virtues. The plot is wholly believable: there are a few twists, but there is no Hollywood ending here, and it is evident in the closing pages that Atlanta still has a long way to go. But Hollywood is apparently interested in turning Mullen’s book into a TV series, and it will certainly translate well. Gritty and informative, this is a brilliant historical page-turner.

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