Reviews by Cloggie Downunder

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Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows
by Balli Kaur Jaswal
Funny, moving and thought-provoking, this is a great read! (4/17/2018)
“It would be easier to be a criminal fairly prosecuted by the law than an Indian daughter who wronged her family. A crime would be punishable by a jail sentence of definite duration rather than this uncertain length of family guilt trips.”

Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows is the third novel by Singapore-born author, Balli Kaur Jaswal. Twenty-two-tear-old Nikki Grewal has found a job teaching creative writing to Punjabi women for the Sikh Community Association at the Southall Temple. This is a welcome development in her life as, with half a law degree and a job in a pub that looks less that permanent, she can do with another source of income. And facilitating these ladies in finding their creative voices speaks to her sense of promoting women’s rights.

But the woman who employed her, Kulwinder Kaur has perhaps been less than honest: it turns out that most of these women can’t read or write at all, Punjabi or English. When her basic lessons apparently bore the widows, they begin telling stories they know, have heard or made up. And not just innocent little tales, but erotic stories, just about the very last thing Nikki would have expected from the mouths of these respectable ladies. One of their number is literate enough to be their scribe: could their tales be published?

As Nikki becomes more familiar with her students, she realises that despite their candid talk, there is something they are not revealing. It has to do with a young woman whose death, fourteen years earlier, is still a mystery. Or is it really? As Nikki gains her students’ trust, she learns of another death, labelled accidental, and then the recent purported suicide of Kulwinder’s daughter, Maya.

One of her widows says: “All those people who say, ‘Take no notice of those widows. Without their husbands, they’re irrelevant.’ We’d be invisible in India; I suppose it makes no difference that we’re in England.” But news of the classes spreads among the women in the community and far beyond, and more students join the group; Nikki worries that the real content of their writing will attract the wrong sort of attention.

Jaswal’s novel explores many topical subjects for Indians living in Britain: parental pressure regards career or marriage partner; the vital importance of status and reputation in this community; and the powerlessness of women in the community are but some of these. She describes a culture that, in twenty-first century London, still condones or even promotes arranged marriages, bounty hunters and honour killings; a culture that is slow to react to modern times and difficult to change while is it perpetuated by the men in power and by some of the older, uneducated and often illiterate women.

While these are serious topics, Jaswal also gives the reader plenty of humour, much of it quite black, charming characters, natural dialogue and a rather exciting climax. As for the sexy little stories, they can easily be skipped if mild erotica is not to the reader’s taste, without affecting the flow of the main story. Funny, moving and thought-provoking, this is a great read!
The Radleys: A Novel
by Matt Haig
intelligent, clever and blackly funny. (4/13/2018)
“I can control myself. Look, for God’s sake. Look at everyone. Everyone represses everything. Do you think any of these ‘normal’ human beings really do exactly what they want to do all the time? ‘Course not. It’s just the same. We’re middle-class and we’re British. Repression is in our veins.”

The Radleys is the third adult novel by British author, Matt Haig. Another novel featuring abstaining teenaged vampires? Well, yes, but this is Matt Haig’s creation, set in a North Yorkshire village: a world away from Twilight.

Seventeen years ago, Peter and Helen Radley became abstainers. They now eschew human blood, surviving on animal products, even if it means a reduced life expectancy, continual migraines, depression and low energy levels. With their two teenagers, Rowan and Clara, they try to live a normal, middle-class life in Bishopthorpe.

Despite their efforts to blend in, not everyone around them is convinced. Their next-door neighbours sense something, and Clara’s new friend, Eve Copeland, is recently arrived from Manchester with her ex-CID father who is casting a suspicious eye on the Radleys.

Rowan and Clara are themselves completely unaware, knowing only that something is not quite right: they’ve no energy, get skin rashes from sun exposure, can’t sleep, animals avoid them and the kids at school think they’re weird. Recently, Clara has undertaken to become a vegan, exacerbating the chance of an attack of OBT (Overwhelming Blood Thirst), a condition to which she has no idea she might be prone.

Then circumstances place her in a field on a Friday night with an insistent and very drunk young thug, and the inevitable happens. And when Peter’s older brother Will, a charismatic, practising vampire with an insatiable and indiscriminate bloodlust, turns up to help deal with the family’s crisis, things really get complicated.

In this tale, Haig gives the reader an original plot that showcases his talent for portraying everyday characters facing not-so-everyday situations. He describes the English village life to a T, even if Bishopthorpe only thinks it is: “A place which fools itself into believing it is the epitome of a quaint English village but which, like most places, is really just one large fancy-dress shop, with more subtle costumes.”

The narrative, taking place over four days in May, is from multiple perspectives and is supplemented by quotes from The Abstainer’s Handbook. There’s plenty of dark humour, including the irony of a vampire who would be most people’s nightmare, actually having nightmares himself. Haig’s cops monitoring vampires (the Unnamed Predator Unit) though, are chillingly pragmatic when it comes to vampire kills.

Haig’s characters develop and mature under the pressure of events, and he gives them some insightful observations: “The kind of thrill people get when something devastating happens, a thrill they never admit to, but which dances in their eyes as they talk about how bad they feel.” and “It felt strangely grown-up too, as though that’s what being an adult was – the ability to know which secrets needed keeping. And which lies will save the ones you love.” are examples.

Certain Australian beer drinkers will be delighted to learn that VB (in this case, Vampire Blood) is a revered tipple in vampire society. Another brilliant offering from Matt Haig, this one is intelligent, clever and blackly funny.
Census
by Jesse Ball
a wonderfully moving tribute to an obviously loved sibling. (3/13/2018)
4.5?s
“My wife and I always spoke of making a trip together to show our son the country, but it never came. For one reason or another, it never came, and so I felt when my wife passed, when the idea rose in me about the census, I felt finally it was time to take out the Stafford, to drive the roads north. In her death, I felt a sure beginning of my own end – I felt I could certainly not last much longer, and so, as life is vested in variety, so we, my son, myself, we had to prolong what life we had by seeing every last thing we could put our eyes upon.”

Census is the seventh novel by American poet and author, Jesse Ball. In his introduction, he explains the dedication to his older brother, Abram Ball, who had Down syndrome and died, aged twenty-four, in 1998. The surgeon and his son travel north in their (unnamed) country from City A to the town of Z in their Stafford Carriagecar, taking the Census.

In that role, they meet a large number of people, many of whom are welcoming and hospitable, whilst some others are quite the opposite. The surgeon asks his questions and hears many stories, some first-hand, others more removed. Most are kind to his son but: “It is easy for humans to be cruel, and they leap t it. They love to do it. It is an exercise of all their laughable powers.”

The father notes that his son’s behaviour is not always easily explicable, but “I have never sought to change what is essentially to my eyes, a basic resourcefulness that finds at any moment something profound. My wife was of the same opinion, but surely we did suffer for it. The long apologies we would have to give to the legions of helpers. But strangely, no one was ever angry about it. People became fond of him very quickly, and that has always helped.”

A couple with a now-deceased Down syndrome daughter told him: “There is a kind of understanding that can grow in a place, and then everyone, every last person can be a sort of protector for them. This is a thing she can confer on others – a kind of momentary vocation, and that is a real gift… Some people were cruel to her, but here, something grew. It was a fine place for her to live, and when she died, she was missed”

There are no quotation marks for speech, which may annoy some readers, although any speech is usually apparent from the context. Similarly, for almost three quarters of the book, characters are not given names, and are distinguished only by descriptors: my wife, my son, a boy, the man, the doctor, an old man. In a way, it reflects on the anonymity of the census and is partly explained by the father’s musings on our desire to name things.

Where Ball has the father saying “…we felt lucky to have had him, and lucky to become the ones who were continually with him, caring for him” it could not be clearer that this is what he and his family felt for his brother. This is a wonderfully moving tribute to an obviously loved sibling.
American by Day
by Derek B. Miller
funny, moving and thought-provoking novel is a brilliant sequel to Norwegian By Night. (3/6/2018)
American By Day is the second novel by award winning American-born author Derek B. Miller which features Chief Inspector Sigrid Ødegård of the Oslo Politi. Sigrid first appears in Miller’s debut novel, Norwegian By Night (another excellent read!). Readers with any intention of reading Norwegian By Night are strongly advised to do so before reading this one as there are significant spoilers for NbN in American By Day.

Paternal pressures and concerns see Sigrid Ødegård travelling to upstate New York to make contact with her suddenly-incommunicative older brother, Marcus. She discovers that Sheriff Irving Wylie is looking for him too, wanting to question Marcus about the death of his (black) lover, Professor Lydia Jones.

There on the scene, Sigrid also learns that Lydia’s young nephew was, weeks earlier, shot and killed by a police officer in what could have been a racially motivated attack. All this against a backdrop of the country gearing up for an election that may deliver America’s first black President.

How then - with a black community demanding justice for their dead, a pacifist sheriff (with a divinity degree, no less) under pressure from the county commissioner, a SWAT team, a gang of white supremacist bikers, a trigger happy SERT squad leader, a couple of Molotov cocktails and a Norwegian police chief who is certain her brother is innocent - how will this not end up in a bloodbath?

Readers looking for an action-packed crime thriller are in the wrong place. Miller gives the reader a piece of literary crime that is punctuated by thought-provoking discussions between the characters as they wait. And that’s realistic, even if that’s the bit, all the waiting between dramatic events, that the thrillers omit. That said, there are definitely exciting bits.

Miller’s characters are mostly appealing, for all their flaws, and even the ones who are there to be despised are not complete stereotypes. It’s difficult not to care about what happens to these people, and Irving is likely to be a favourite. He continues to surprise throughout the story, and his speech to the black congregation is wonderful.

Miller gives his characters opinions on a myriad of issues, both topical and perennial: politicians and election campaigns; guns and gun crime; institutionalised racism; the pressure to be seen to be taking action; sadness and depression; individualism vs cooperation; fatal police shootings. The debate is usually balanced, always intelligent, and yes, sometimes the characters get a bit preachy, as people do on any controversial issue about which they are passionate.

As with Norwegian By Night, this novel features a protagonist who is a stranger in a strange land. Sheldon could speak no Norwegian. Sigrid speaks good English, but that doesn’t necessarily mean she fully understands all that is being said, or can always make her own meaning clear. And America, she has decided, is definitely a weird place. Her observations about America are insightful and often amusing.

The characters’ dialogue and their inner monologues are consistent sources of humour. It is sometimes subtle, often dry, occasionally tongue-in-cheek and at times, very dark, but Miller gives the reader plenty of laugh out loud moments. He also treats the reader to some marvelous descriptive prose: “She fires up the bus, which rumbles to life with the enthusiasm of an old man passing gas. The hydraulic doors seem to suck the passengers inside; like a giant vacuum it clears the platform and removes all traces of humanity except the lingering smell.”

Rather than being numbered, the chapters are meaningfully titled from the text. Enclosed within an evocative Hopper Nighthawks-esque cover, this funny, moving and thought-provoking novel is a brilliant sequel to Norwegian By Night.
The Beatrice Letters: A Series of Unfortunate Events
by Lemony Snicket
Disappointing. (2/16/2018)
The Beatrice Letters is a short book in A Series of Unfortunate Events by American author, Lemony Snicket (aka Daniel Handler). It consists of twelve items of correspondence between Lemony Snicket and Beatrice Buadelaire, who is apparently the sister of Violet, Klaus and Sunny Baudelaire, and a letter to his editor. While it is difficult to make any sense at all out of this, frankly, bizarre collection, Snicket does display his love of whacky definitions and wordplay like puns and anagrams. The items include calling cards, a poem, a telegram and letters: typed, hand-written and of the punch-out variety, this last allowing for plenty of games with homonyms. Separating these items are colour-plates of shipwrecks, caves and certain relevant(?) objects. There is probably some cleverness in there somewhere, but not enough to justify the price unless you are a die-hard Series of Unfortunate Events fan. Disappointing.
Terms & Conditions
by Robert Glancy
an outstanding debut novel (2/2/2018)
“Doug’s head sagged and I felt him give up on me. That feeling of people giving up on me, that’s a physical sensation now. As if we’re tied by a million soft strings and when I disappoint a few thousand strings stretch and break, as my connection to that person is severed by yet more thin slices of disappointment.”

Terms and Conditions is the first novel by Zambian-born, Malawi-raised New Zealand author, Robert Glancy. A car accident has left Franklyn Shaw with a brain injury, the immediate effect of which is total amnesia. He is apparently married to Alice, a Human Resources expert, model-thin and hard, immaculately tailored; he has an older brother, Oscar, who runs the family law firm; he has a younger brother, Malcolm, a free spirit and maybe a bit of a hippie, judging by the emails Frank receives from various Asian locales.

Assured that his memory will gradually return, Frank gently eases back into the life he apparently had before the accident. But when the memories begin to return, some are quite disturbing: the emptiness of his life is disappointing; he is dismayed by his own weak response to challenges; his marriage is not all he had hoped for; and his brother’s management of the family firm would not meet with their father’s, nor their grandfather’s, approval. And why will no one tell him about the “episode” he had before the accident?

Glancy’s characters are easily believable and realistically flawed. Most have some appeal, for all their faults, but there are two who are not difficult to despise. Of one is said: “You make my heart grow small” by a youngster with a perceptiveness belied by his years. It is this person who “…smiled a smile so thin it could slice eyeballs.” Glancy gives many of his characters words of wisdom and insightful observations about human behaviour. It is satisfying to see that the amnesiac Frank’s instinctive assessment of those he “meets” stands the test of the regained memory.

Glancy’s protagonist is a corporate lawyer specialising in the Terms and Conditions of Contracts (those bits we all ignore at our peril), so it is entirely fitting that his story takes the format of the Terms and Conditions of a Contract. It is divided into Clauses (rather than chapters) and the Terms and Conditions come (of course) with footnotes, although when those footnotes generate footnotes of their own, which also generate footnotes, the eyesight of readers of a certain vintage is bound to be challenged. (Footnote: Are you wearing your glasses? OK, then good lighting and a magnifying glass may be needed.) But it is worth the effort to read every one of those footnotes.

Glancy wraps his tale in some wonderful descriptive prose. This is an outstanding debut novel, full of humour and wit, moving and ultimately uplifting. Readers who enjoy it will be pleased to know that Glancy has written a second novel, Please Do Not Disturb.
The Plea
by Steve Cavanagh
Another page-turner (1/23/2018)
The Plea is the second book in the Eddie Flynn series by American author, Steve Cavanagh. Eddie Flynn is a former conman turned lawyer. He was, formerly, not too choosy about whom he defended. On Sunday March 15th, Eddie Flynn arrives at his office to find the FBI and the CIA rummaging through his files. They want him to steal a client from a prestigious law firm, convince him to plead guilty and then do a deal with the DA. David Child, wealthy social media developer, is the defendant in a murder trial, but he has something the CIA wants.

Why should Eddie help? Unfortunately, those agencies have information that, despite her pristine legal record, will put his estranged wife, Christine behind bars for many years. A mere 48 hours (and several dead bodies) later, Eddie’s involved in a deadly shootout and facing the same gun as killed the first murder victim.

Eddie Flynn: realist or cynic? “Lawyers don’t usually question whether or not a client is telling the truth. That way lies madness. You do what you have to and trust the system. So, the guilty plead guilty. The innocent fight their case and the jury decides. If a by-product of that process is the emergence of truth, then so be it, but the truth is not the aim of the process. The verdict is the aim. Truth has no place in the trial because no one is concerned with finding it, least of all the lawyers or the judge.” This time, though, he’s fairly certain his client is telling the truth.

Cavanagh’s second Eddie Flynn novel matches the first as a fast-paced legal thriller. He again gives the reader a plot with twists, surprises and not a few red herrings. It’s a rollercoaster ride of car chases, cons and tricks, and clever court-room scenes, culminating in a dramatic climax. His smart and talented protagonist is a flawed character with a good heart. Eddie is able to think on the run, and is fortunate to have a network of skilled and reliable people he can call on to help. Another page-turner that will have fans keen for The Liar.
Slumberland: A Novel
by Paul Beatty
Original, incisive and funny. (12/28/2017)
“The Schwa ruffled the pages of the book over his pant seam, and the resulting sound rivaled that of the best Max Roach brushwork. I nearly fainted. He lifted the book to his mouth and played chapter seven like a diatonic harmonica; blowing and drawing on the pages like leaves of grass in the hands of Pan. Who knew a Signet paperback was in the key of D? For the more percussive sounds he rapped the spine on his elbow, thumb drummed page corners, pizzicatoed the preface, flutter tongued the denouement and bariolaged the blurbs.”

Slumberland is the third novel by Man Booker Prize-winning American author, Paul Beatty. Ferguson W. Sowell, aka DJ Darky has a talent for DJing, and says “I compensate for a lack of skills and Negritude with a surfeit of good taste and a record collection that I like to think is to DJing what the Louvre is to painting.” He has spent months trying to compose his perfect beat, and it’s almost there: in the parlance, it is “presque parfait”.

The Beard Scratchers, members of his record pool, agree. After much analysis, they hit upon the missing element: it needs to be ratified by their ultimate beat break, the elusive Charles Stone, aka the Schwa. Coincidentally (or perhaps not quite?), Ferguson comes across a porn tape sound-tracked with music certain to be the Schwa’s. The trail leads to East Germany and, with some help from the Beard Scratchers, Ferguson finds himself engaged as a Jukebox-Sommelier at the Slumberland Bar in Berlin.

It is a Berlin about to tear down its Wall, and Ferguson is somewhat surprised to find that others share his love of the Schwa’s music: he is assisted in his quest by a bartender, a journalist, a Stasi agent, a pair of German negro sisters, and, eventually, the clientele of the Slumberland. Through a number of quirky characters and some crazy, laugh-out-loud events, Beatty examines the experience of the negro in Germany.

One World have produced editions of Beatty’s four novel with themed covers and this one has LP discs on the cover. A knowledge and appreciation of jazz is bound to enhance the enjoyment of this story, but is not essential, because the plot and characters are strong enough to draw the reader in. The musical descriptions certainly make the reader wish to hear the Schwa’s music. There’s plenty of wit and black humour in Beatty’s lyrical prose. Original, incisive and funny.
Real Tigers: A Slough House Novel
by Mick Herron
More excellent British spy fiction! (12/24/2017)
Real Tigers is the third book in the Slough House series by prize-winning British author, Mick Herron. Slough House, that “administrative oubliette” of the intelligence service, is a repository for inconvenient or incompetent spooks: the spies who have caused embarrassment by losing a gun runner on surveillance, have anger management issues, or managed to close down Kings Cross Station in a training exercise. The current staff of seven “slow horses” occupy their time with tasks like comparing census results for anomalies, or checking passports issued during the ’81 Civil Service strike.

But now, one of their number has been kidnapped, and the ransom involves access to classified files. River Cartwright’s impulsive attempt to follow this demand sees him caught, interrogated and thoroughly beaten. It turns out to be a busy twenty-four hours for the slow horses: they are assaulted, shot at, sacked, tasered, and threatened with closure. Weapons include a broken CD, a Klieg light, a metal pipe, and even Jackson Lamb wields a gun. Roderick Ho pauses in his deluded belief of virility, to actually leave the office and crash a double-decker bus.

Once again, Herron gives the reader a fast-paced spy novel of a very different sort. The premise is original, and the execution is inspired. The characters are all credibly flawed, their dialogue is full of understated dry wit, and there is plenty of humour, most of it very black and very British, with an abundance of laugh out loud moments. There are twists and red herrings and plenty of back-stabbing and the reader will find it hard not to cheer these misfits on as they do their best. Readers will be pleased to learn there are two further volumes of this series for their entertainment and enjoyment. More excellent British spy fiction!
The Perfect Girl
by Gilly Macmillan
Brilliant (12/5/2017)
“Adults like to put a name on everything you feel, as if a name can neutralise it. They’re wrong, though. Some things settle under your skin and don’t ever go away, no matter what you call them”

The Perfect Girl, also titled much more evocatively, Butterfly in the Dark, is the second novel by British author, Gilly Macmillan. At fourteen years of age, Zoe Guerin, a precociously talented Devon girl, had a promising career as a concert pianist ahead of her. Then she was found guilty of causing an accident that took three teenagers’ lives.

At seventeen, now called Zoe Maisey, she has served her sentence in a Secure Unit, and her mother Maria has tried to give them both what Zoe recognises as a Second Chance at Life. But her attempt to restart her career in Bristol is dramatically aborted due to an incident that vividly brings back that tragic event and its aftermath. And mere hours later, Maria Maisey is dead.

Macmillan employs three main narrators (Zoe, her aunt Tessa and her solicitor, Sam) to tell the story, adding another two in later chapters. The bulk of the story covers a period of less than twenty-four hours, but there are flashbacks that detail earlier occurrences.

Zoe’s memories of her trial, her interactions with her keyworker at the Secure Unit, and a film script written by her step-brother, Lucas, serve to fill in some of the back story and establish Zoe’s state of mind. Both Sam’s and Tessa’s more mature perspectives establish the nature of the main characters and their interactions.

Macmillan’s portrayal of a brilliant teenager and the effects of the accident on her life, and the lives of those close to her, is convincing. Her descriptive prose is evocative: ‘Lucas … just moved quietly around the different parts of the house and when he settled down anywhere, it reminded me of a dark shadow cast over a patch of white sand”.

While the cover’s enticer “Nobody knows the truth but her” is quite misleading, this is a gripping tale. All the characters have secrets and several could have motives for murder. Macmillan skilfully builds her story, gradually feeding in clues and red herrings to produce a page-turner that will keep the reader guessing until the truth is revealed. Recommended!
Uncommon Type: Some Stories
by Tom Hanks
Very enjoyable. (12/3/2017)
Uncommon Type: Some Stories is the first print book by American actor, filmmaker and author, Tom Hanks. This is a collection of seventeen quite diverse stories. They vary not only in subject matter, but also format. Many are straight narrative, but there’s also a screen play and a series of newspaper columns from the Tri-Cities Daily News/Herald entitled Our Town Today with Hank Fiset. Hank muses on modern news consumption and production compared with that of fifty years ago; he shares his opinion of New York City; he reminisces on significant moments in his life as punctuated by a typewriter bell; he describes a return to analog by a typewriting evangelista.

Typewriters feature heavily: there’s a typewriter on the cover; there’s an image of a different model of typewriter at the beginning of each chapter; sometimes, a typewriter is an integral part of the story, sometimes it has a minor role, and sometimes it just gets an incidental mention. Many of the characters are appealing and a particular quartet who reappear twice after their initial tale might be well suited to have their own novel (in fact, one of their stories was published in a separate volume in 2014).

The stories are an ideal length for dipping into, but also interesting and different enough to read without pause. Topics are many and mixed: refugees in the present day (or near future) and from a half a century ago; travel by car and plane as well as time travel, space travel and travel down memory lane; ten pin bowling; surfing; motel accommodation; moving house; the public relations junket; making it on the stage; the heavy toll of wartime service.

Hanks gives the reader laughter and romance, loyal friends, wise words and plots that aren’t entirely predictable. It’s easy to imagine Hanks himself as the narrator in many of these tales: his voice is really there, even in the print version. This is an outstanding debut, and if Hanks ever tires of Hollywood, he can certainly direct his energies to the keyboard (whether a typewriter or electronic), as more tales of this ilk would definitely be welcome. Very enjoyable.
Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk
by Kathleen Rooney
A moving and entertaining read. (11/1/2017)
Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk is the second novel by American author, Kathleen Rooney. It’s New Year’s Eve, 1984 and Lillian Boxfish, ex-wife, mother, grandmother, just a shade older than the century itself, takes a walk from her home on Murray Hill to Grimaldis where she’s going to have her traditional NYE dinner. Walking the footpaths of her city sets her thinking: about her city and about her life. She takes a detour for a drink, and at Grimaldis, things don’t quite go as planned, and Lillian walks on.

As Lillian considers her life, she heads for landmarks meaningful to her: restaurants, a hospital, the Hudson River, places she’s lived and her place of work for fifteen years. It was at R.H.Macy’s that Lillian Boxfish became the highest-paid advertising woman in America. As Lillian walks, she thinks back on her life: her divorce, her marriage, the birth of her son, her honeymoon cruise, and another, less happy one, to Italy. She remembers parties, work, men, her best friend, homes, her boss, work colleagues, books she wrote and editors. A hospital stay and a certain TV appearance are among the less-favoured memories.

Despite the cautions and concerns of her son, she walks through the streets of New York on this last night of 1984, and she encounters its denizens: a limo driver at a loose end, a barman, a restaurant maître d’, a security guard, a kindly dinner host, an angry homosexual, a terrified expectant mother, a helpful and courteous shop assistant and some disaffected black youths. She dines, drinks, shops, parties, gives away money and writes a bill of sale.

Rooney’s story is based on an actual person, but is quite definitely fiction. She paints a marvellous picture of New York over a span of sixty years, and this is a tale that would appeal to readers familiar with New York City, but more especially, to residents of the Big Apple. The Boston Globe calls it “A witty and heartfelt ode to a city” and this is a most apt description. A moving and entertaining read.
The Good People
by Hannah Kent
does not disappoint. (10/28/2017)
“The Good People are cunning when they are not merry. They do what pleases them because they serve neither God nor Devil, and no one can assure them of a place in Heaven or Hell. Not good enough to be saved, and not bad enough to be lost”

The Good People is the second novel by award-winning Australian author, Hannah Kent. It’s 1825, and Nora Leahy lives in a small mountain village near the Flesk River, about ten miles from Killarney. When John O’Donoghue and Peter O‘Connor, two men of the village bring the body of her just deceased husband, Martin to their cabin, she is understandably distraught. But her very first thought is to ask Peter to take her grandson, Micheal, to her nearest neighbour, Peg O’Shea. She knows the cabin will soon fill with neighbours, and doesn’t want Michael seen.

Two months earlier, her son-in-law, Tadgh Kelliher had brought news of the passing of her only daughter, Johanna, and left their son, Micheal in his grandparents’ care. But four-year-old Micheal cannot walk, cannot talk, and screams inconsolably much of the time. Nora is now left to care for him alone, and she knows the village will be superstitious about his deformities.

Peg suggests she needs help, so she hires fourteen-year-old Mary Clifford at the hiring fair in Killarney. Mary does her best, but Nora is desperate to bring Micheal back to the healthy state she remembers when he was two. When the local woman “with the knowledge”, Nance Roche sees Micheal, she tells Nora he is likely a changeling: she knows how to bring back Nora’s grandson and banish this unwanted fairy.

“Nance knew that the only reason they had allowed her this damp cabin between mountain and wood and river for twenty-odd years was because she stood in for that which was not and could not be understood. She was the gatekeeper at the edge of the world. The final human hymn before all fell to wind and shadow and the strange creaking of stars. She was a pagan chorus. An older song”

“Nora saw the boy as Nance saw him then. A wild, crabbed child no heavier than the weight of snow upon a branch. A clutch of bones rippling with the movement of wind on water. Thistle-headed. Fierce-chinned. Small fingers clutching in front of him as though the air were filled with wonders and not the smoke of the fire and their own stale breath”

Kent bases her tale on a real life event, so reading the Author’s Note last will avoid spoilers. With her gorgeous descriptive prose, Kent easily evokes the day-to-day village life in early 19th century Ireland. The depth of her research into this period is apparent in every paragraph, but all those little details are woven seamlessly into the story: things like the average diet (potatoes, dairy products, tea and poitin), death rituals, footwear (none), customs, beliefs and common sayings give the tale authenticity.

This was an era when religious belief existed side by side with folk belief. Natural occurrences like stillbirth, heart attack, accidental injury, poor milk production or low crop yield were often seen as signs or omens of something sinister; rituals to avoid these were a daily practice. Kent paints a picture of a village where jealousy, resentment, rumour and superstition lead to a sort of mass hysteria.

Each of Kent’s three main characters has very human flaws, even when their intentions are good: “Nora had always believed herself to be a good woman. A kind woman. But perhaps, she thought, we are good only when life makes it easy for us to be so. Maybe the heart hardens when good fortune is not there to soften it”.

Her final evocative paragraph (“The air was sweet and damp. A morning mist rolled down off the mountains and their purple skins. Hares moved lightly through the heather, white tails scuttling through the dark tangle of brambles before the rowan trees, blossom-white, the clover. The lane was empty before her, and there was no movement in the waiting valley, no wind. Only the birds above her and, in the slow unpeeling of darkness, a divinity of sky”) confirm Kent’s deserved place in historical fiction. Kent’s second novel does not disappoint.
Standard Deviation
by Katherine Heiny
A delightfully sensitive, heart-warming read. (10/24/2017)
4.5 stars

“It occurred to Graham that here, finally, was the similarity between these two women he’d chosen to marry: they were both totally unrufflable, one out of iciness, the other out of obliviousness.”

Standard Deviation is the second book by American author, Katherine Heiny. Fifty-six-year-old Graham Cavanaugh has been married to Audra Daltry for twelve years. “Audra was not quite beautiful, but her liveliness kept her far away from plain.” She was the reason he split with his first wife, Elspeth. Two more different women are hard to imagine, and Graham’s life now is a far cry from the ordered existence he had with Elspeth. He has Matthew, his ten-year-old autistic-spectrum son, whose current interest (obsession?) is origami.

Graham narrates the events of their lives: the various people that Audra invites to dinner, or to stay over, sometimes for unspecified periods of time, in their den, all with perfectly sound Audra logic; encountering his ex-wife in the deli; an origami conference; a playdate for Matthew that includes a grandfather and his dog; a Thanksgiving dinner that puts several guests in the hospital; dinner and get-togethers with his ex-wife and her partner; almost affairs; summons by the school principal about Matthew’s accessing porn on the school computer; interactions with his incredibly naïve secretary; and the inheriting of a coke machine.

All of Heiny’s characters are a bit quirky, a bit odd, but despite her flaws and foibles (“…Graham wondered if there was sort of processing unit – some sort of filter – missing from Audra’s brain. She said things all the time without realising how they sounded…”), Audra is almost impossible to dislike. While Graham sometimes longs for the quiet, ordered life he had with Elspeth, and even indulges in some of it for a while, he eventually realises that he would not swap his unconventional life with Audra or his often difficult but nonetheless remarkable son for the ordinary, regular ones that other people have.

Nothing really dramatic ever happens but, like Anne Tyler, Heiny has a singular talent for taking ordinary people doing fairly ordinary things and keeping the reader enthralled and endeared. Her pace is sedate, her descriptive prose, lovely, her dialogue, realistic. Fans of Tyler’s work are very likely to enjoy this one. A delightfully sensitive, heart-warming read.
Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore
by Matthew Sullivan
a brilliant debut novel (10/14/2017)
Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore is the first novel by American bookseller, teacher and author, Matthew Sullivan. Midnight is closing time at the Bright Ideas Bookstore in Lower Downtown Denver, and Lydia Smith is rounding up the stragglers. She knows one of their regulars, Joey is upstairs, but when she reaches the top floor, having heard books thumping onto the floor, she finds him hanging by the neck from a ceiling beam. Poking out of his jeans pocket is a photograph of Lydia with her best friends on her tenth birthday, and Joey’s fingertips are all cuts covered in tape.

Joey’s suicide upsets the hard-won equilibrium of Lydia’s life. She is horrified to realise she appears in a newspaper photograph of the scene; people from a past she has tried to forget begin to make contact, unwelcome contact. Joey left no suicide note but he has, it seems from a Post-it note retrieved from his landlady’s bra, chosen Lydia as the recipient of his worldly goods. Which include a black wool suit, pressed white shirt and red tie, a metal trash can holding the charred remains of Joey’s papers, and a crate of strangely mutilated books. Is there a message in there for Lydia? If so, why her? And how did Joey come by the photo of her?

Sullivan gives the reader a story told over two time periods: present day and twenty years earlier. Much of it is told from Lydia’s perspective, but her father, Tomas carries part of the narrative. It’s a cleverly constructed story. There’s a twenty-year-old cold case in there, an unsolved and violent triple murder and, while a very astute reader may deduce the identity and motive of The Hammerman early on, for most readers the who and why will come clear only in the last eighty pages.

Sullivan populates his novel with quirky characters: bookstore customers and staff, friends, lovers, family, they are appealing for all their flaws and foibles. The bookstore and the library are almost characters in themselves, and the titles in Joey’s crate of books are diverse and definitely a bit eccentric. This is a tale with action and excitement, with humour and heartache, with a bit of lust and a lot of love. It is a brilliant debut novel and it will be interesting to see what this talented author does next.
A Gentleman in Moscow
by Amor Towles
Simply wonderful! (9/11/2017)
“Some might wonder that the two men should consider themselves to be old friends having only known each other for four years; but the tenure of friendships has never been governed by the passage of time. These two would have felt like old friends had they met just hours before. To some degree, this was because they were kindred spirits – finding ample evidence of common ground and cause for laughter in the midst of effortless conversation; but it was also almost certainly a matter of upbringing. Raised in grand homes in cosmopolitan cities, educated in the liberal arts, graced with idle hors, and exposed to the finest things, though the Count and the American had been born ten years and four thousand miles apart, they had more in common with each other than they had with the majority of their countrymen.”

A Gentleman in Moscow is the second novel by American author, Amor Towles. At the age of thirty-two, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov finds himself under house arrest in Moscow’s Hotel Metropol. It’s 1922, and the Bolsheviks are in charge; as an aristocrat, Count Rostov becomes a Former Person. Rostov has been occupying a suite on the third floor; now he leaves behind for “The People” all that he cannot fit into a tiny attic room three floors up. A good friend states, much later “Who would have imagined, when you were sentenced to life in the Metropol all those years ago, that you had just become the luckiest man in all of Russia.”

Towles drops his readers into Rostov’s life every few years, bringing them up to date on significant events and people. If his detention is meant to be a punishment, Rostov is determined to make the best of it, and does so, despite some shaky times and one suicidal moment. Already well respected before his confinement, within a few years Count Rostov’s role goes significantly beyond that of an involuntary guest held in great affection. For loved and respected he indeed is, by guests and all bar one member of the Metropol’s staff.

This is not an action-packed page-turner, although there is a good dose of intrigue, some romance, plenty of humour and a rather exciting climax. This is a novel that meanders along at a gentle pace. Towles is a skilful storyteller: even seemingly unimportant details woven into the narrative prove their significance if the reader is patient. As well as exploring the philosophies of friendship and of politics, his setting facilitates a suitably nasty and vindictive petty bureaucrat, and a very fine example of communist equality policy at its silliest.

This is a novel with love and loyalty, compassion and quite a lot of wisdom, all wrapped is beautiful prose: “For if a room that exists under the governance, authority, and intent of others seems smaller than it is, then a room that exists in secret can, regardless of its dimensions, seem as vast as one cares to imagine”. David Nicholls describes Towles’s first novel as “terrific”; his fans might think this one is too. Simply wonderful!
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness
by Arundhati Roy
a moving and powerful read. (8/14/2017)
“Their wounds were too old and too new, too different, and perhaps too deep, for healing. But for a fleeting moment, they were able to pool them like accumulated gambling debts and share the pain equally, without naming injuries or asking which was whose. For a fleeting moment they were able to repudiate the world they lived in and call forth another one, just as real.”

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is the second novel by Booker Prize winning author, Arundhati Roy. The story begins with Aftab, whose confusion about what he was found relief at the Khwabgah, among other hijra. He became Anjum, and eventually she ran the Jannat Guest House (in its highly unusual location), a refuge for the quirky, the oppressed, the different.

Integral to the tale is S. Tilottama, real and adopted daughter of Maryam Ipe. Tilo’s story, and that of the three men who love her, is told not only by her, but by Dr Azad Bhartiya (fasting Free Indian), Biplab Desgupta (her ex-Intelligence Bureau landlord), and Musa Yeswi (elusive militant). Filling out the quirky cast are a paraven calling himself Saddam Hussain, Zainab the Bandicoot, Naga the journalist, a singing teacher, and an abandoned baby, to name just a few.

How all their lives intersect and how these lives are impacted upon by Government and policy, and in particular, the Kashmiri freedom struggles, is told using vignettes, anecdotes, loosely connected short stories, moral tales, memos, disjointed scraps, accounts that take detours and meander off on tangents. As with Rushdie, Seth and Mistry, this novel has that unmistakeable, essential Indian quality, in characters, in dialogue, in plot.

But here, moreso than in The God of Small Things, the fact that this is a novel by Arundhati Roy the social activist, is very much in evidence (as readers of her non-fiction works will attest) and thus includes illustrations of the many issues against which she rails. Some reviewers describe this novel as “preachy”; the causes are worthy, but readers may feel that is it is only a shade off being exactly that, and perhaps be forgiven for wishing that it was more novel, less moral tale.

Some of Roy’s descriptive prose, as with in The God of Small Things, is staggeringly beautiful, poetic and profound: “They understood of course that it was a dirge for a fallen empire whose international borders had shrunk to a grimy ghetto circumscribed by the ruined walls of an old city. And yes, they realised that it was also a rueful comment on Mulaqat Ali’s own straitened circumstances. What escaped them was that the couplet was a sly snack, a perfidious samosa, a warning wrapped in mourning, being offered with faux humility by an erudite man who had absolute faith in his listeners’ ignorance of Udru, a language which, like most of those who spoke it, was gradually being ghettoized.”

However, the vague and veiled references to certain personages, events and ideas which are, perhaps, obvious to those familiar with Indian current affairs, will go straight over the heads of other readers, the message will be lost or less than clear. There is humour, heartache, despair and hope, there is much cruelty but also abundant kindness, making it a moving and powerful read.
The Defense
by Steve Cavanagh
a real page-turner (8/6/2017)
The Defence is the first book in the Eddie Flynn series by Irish lawyer and author, Steve Cavanagh. Eddie Flynn used to be a con man, a hustler like his father. Then he became a lawyer, almost a street lawyer, taking the kind of cases others avoided. But his last case broke him. It drove him to drink, broke his marriage and he hasn’t been in a courtroom for a year.

Now he’s back, under extreme duress. Olek Volcheck is a Russian Mafia boss on trial for first degree murder. The FBI has a witness, Little Benny, who will put him in jail. Volcheck’s lieutenant, Arturas has hatched an audacious plan that will stop Benny testifying, and Eddie Flynn is an integral part of that plan. He will do what he’s told because Volcheck has Amy, Eddie’s ten-year-old daughter. Unless, that is, Eddie can call up his conman skills to turn the tables on Volcheck.

Cavanagh’s first Eddie Flynn novel is a fast-paced legal thriller. He gives the reader a plot with twists and surprises, a rollercoaster ride filled with crazy elements: there’s a body bomb, an escape along a building ledge, a crooked FBI agent, a hair-raising bike ride, clever courtroom antics and big money. His smart and talented protagonist is a flawed character with a good heart who does not hesitate to act to save his daughter’s life. Luckily, he has some loyal and powerful friends when it matters. This is a real page-turner and it will be interesting to see what Cavanagh has in store for Eddie Flynn in The Plea.
Beartown
by Fredrik Backman
a very good read, but not a brilliant one. (8/4/2017)
The Scandal (also titled Beartown) is the fourth full-length novel by Swedish blogger, columnist and author, Fredrik Backman. It is translated from Swedish by Neil Smith. As remote as this place in the forest is, and barely surviving economic downturns, closures and redundancies, Beartown has one thing going for it: the Beartown Ice Hockey Club Juniors. While the A Team is pretty well hopeless, the Juniors have a star who might just get them to the Final in the big city. And that would bring the attention of sponsors and investors and governing bodies. A kick start for the town would be most welcome, as even those Beartown residents who don’t like ice hockey will acknowledge.

But in the hubris of an interim win, someone steps beyond the bounds of the decency that could be expected, and that whole promising future is thrown into jeopardy.

Backman’s opening sentence tantalises the reader: “Late one evening towards the end of March, a teenager picked up a double-barrelled shotgun, walked into the forest, put the gun to someone else’s head and pulled the trigger.” The mystery of who and how and why is gradually revealed, and involves some twists and a red herring or two, as well as a good dose of philosophising, quite a lot of social commentary and much ice hockey.

Backman is very skilled at the short vignette that describes his minor characters, and also certain important incidents in the lives of major characters. None of his characters is one-dimensional: all have flaws and most have a conscience; some disappoint and some surprise; many keep secrets and some act out of guilt or the hope to protect their loved ones from hurt.

In this tale, Backman touches on several topical themes: the behaviour of sporting team members off the field; peer pressure and bullying; “blame the victim” mentality; loyalty and responsibility; the tacit acceptance of the violence inherent in contact sport; and the sense of entitlement that often affects the privileged.

Yes, there is a lot of Ice Hockey in this story, but it could actually be centred around any team sport in a remote town to the same effect. There is a very slow build-up to the climax, which may be frustrating for some readers, but patience is rewarded. Backman presents moral and ethical dilemmas in a realistic fashion, but is his formula wearing just a little thin? This is a very good read, but not a brilliant one.
All the Ugly and Wonderful Things: A Novel
by Bryn Greenwood
a brilliant debut (7/27/2017)
All The Ugly And Wonderful Things is the first novel by American author, Bryn Greenwood. Eight-year-old Wavonna Lee Quinn has seen more than her share of ugly things in her short life. Her father is a drug dealer with a meth lab just down the hill from the farmhouse where she lives with her mother. Valerie Quinn is drug-addled and self-absorbed, and Wavy spends her days trying to live something like a normal life while protecting her baby brother, Donal from Val’s psychotic fluctuations.

In her life there are few wonderful things; one of those is lying in the nearby meadow looking up at the stars and naming the constellations. Which is what Wavy is doing when Jesse Joe Kellen, a mechanic on an errand for her father, comes riding along on his 1956 Panhead. Seeing ths blond angel at the side of the road causes Kellen to skid, wreck the bike and injure himself in the process. Wavy overcomes her usual reserve to help him.

From this accidental meeting, an unlikely friendship develops between these two. With her family’s lifestyle, Wavy is exposed to violence, drugs and indiscriminate sex, so she has learned to keep a low profile, to eschew attachment to possessions, to trust no one. But Kellen, despite his appearance, despite his criminal history, despite his age (he’s thirteen years older than her), earns her trust. In fact, he’s the only person in her life who cares enough to see her nourished, schooled and protected from harm. But when Wavy reaches her teens, and the relationship changes tenor, it attracts unwelcome attention with tragic consequences.

Greenwood uses multiple narrators to present her story, and these give many points of view, but from Kellen and Wavy’s perspectives, the relationship can be seen as genuine and pure. Greenwood portrays her characters skilfully, and she conveys the sense of time and place and the prevalent social attitudes with consummate ease. Her descriptive prose is often exquisite. This is a tale that is likely to polarise readers, emotional and thought-provoking. A brilliant debut.

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