Reviews by Cloggie Downunder

Power Reviewer  Power Reviewer

Note: This page displays reviews using the email address you currently use to login to BookBrowse. If you have changed your email address during the time you have been a member your older reviews will not show. If that is the case, please email us with any older email addresses you have used for BookBrowse, and we will do our best to link these older reviews to your current profile.
Order Reviews by:
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.
Twenties Girl: A Novel
by Sophie Kinsella
A delightful read. (7/17/2017)
4.5 stars

Twenties Girl is the fourth stand-alone novel by British author, Sophie Kinsella. Life isn’t going terribly well for Lara Lington: without saying why, her boyfriend, Josh has broken up with her (but she’s sure he still loves her, he just needs to be reminded); her fledgling business is in trouble since Natalie (best friend, business partner and front of the whole enterprise) has followed some bloke to Goa; her parents are worrying about her financial security and her psychological welfare; her sister Tonya (married, kids, perfect life) is far too eager to discuss how well Lara is coping (or not) with her break-up; and her parents are insisting she attend her Great Aunt Sadie’s funeral.

And now she’s being haunted? That’s all she needs to put her over the edge. A beautiful young woman in an (admittedly gorgeous) 1920’s dress is demanding her necklace. When the woman identifies herself as Sadie Lancaster, guilt about the neglect shown to her 105-year-old great aunt sees Lara stopping the funeral with a claim of murder. And from there, thing just get crazier. This is a madcap ghost story that’s got intrigue, romance, a good helping of humour and a heart-warming ending. A delightful read.
The Little Friend
by Donna Tartt
a brilliant read (7/9/2017)
“It was the last picture they had of him. Out of focus. Flat expanse of green cut at a slight diagonal, with a white rail and the heaving gloss of a gardenia bush sharp in the foreground at the edge of the porch. Murky, storm-damp sky, shifting liquescence of indigo and slate, boiling clouds rayed with spokes of light. In the corner of the frame a blurred shadow of Robin, his back to the viewer, ran out across the hazy lawn to meet his death, which stood waiting for him – almost visible – in the dark place beneath the tupelo tree”

The Little Friend is the second novel by American author, Donna Tartt. Harriet Cleve Dufresnes is twelve. Her best friend, (Duncan) Hely Hull is eleven. It is the summer of 1976, Alexandria, Mississippi, and they have managed to avoid being sent to camp. Having exhausted their usual activities, Harriet becomes interested in the murder of her brother Robin, who at age nine was found hanging from the black tupelo tree on Mother’s Day, twelve years earlier. It’s something nobody talks about.

Tartt expertly captures feel of a never-ending Mississippi summer during vacation time. Her portrayal of twelve-year old Harriet beautifully illustrates the naivete and the single-minded self-absorption of youth which, coupled with the allure of a taboo topic, facilitates a fixation borne of an absolute conviction based on hearsay. Tartt brings together in one tale the genteel class who still have black servants and the residents of the seedier side of town, the poor “White Trash”. The poverty mindset is well depicted, as is that of the more fortunate classes:

“She possessed, to a singular and uncomfortable degree, the narrowness of vision which enabled all the Cleves to forget what they didn’t want to remember, and to exaggerate or otherwise alter what they couldn’t forget; and in restringing the skeleton of the extinct monstrosity which had been her family’s fortune, she was unaware that some of the bones had been tampered with; that others belonged to different animals entirely; that a great many of the more massive and spectacular bones were not bones at all, but plaster-of-paris forgeries”

At over five hundred pages, this is no fast-paced murder mystery, but rather, a slow burn Southern drama, in which the tension builds to an exciting climax. This novel is filled with some deliciously black humour and a good dose of irony as characters navigate their war through meth labs and drug-fuelled paranoia, snakes and preachers, summer camp and funeral parlours, trailers and decaying elegance, grief and guilt.

Tartt treats the reader to some marvellous descriptive prose: “The view had captivated her: washing fluttering on lines, peaked roofs like a field of origami arks, roofs red and green and black and silver, roofs of shingle and copper and tar and tin, spread out below them in the airy, dreamy distance. It was like seeing into another country. The vista had a whimsical, toy quality which reminded her of pictures she’d seen of the Orient - of China, of Japan” and “This isn’t real, he told himself, not real, no it’s just a dream, and indeed, for many years to come – well into adulthood – his dreams would drop him back sharply into this malodorous dark, among the hissing treasure-chests of nightmare” are examples. A brilliant read.
Himself
by Jess Kidd
outstanding debut novel (6/27/2017)
4.5 stars

“He looked at the envelope in his hand. ‘For when the child is grown’… Inside the envelope was a photograph of a girl with a half-smile holding a blurred bundle, high and awkwardly, like found treasure. Mahony turned it over and the good solid schoolteacherly hand dealt him a left hook. ‘Your name is Francis Sweeney. Your mammy was Orla Sweeney. You are from Mulderrig, Co. Mayo. This is a picture of yourself and her. For your information she was the curse of the town, so they took her from you. They all lie, so watch yourself, and know that your mammy loved you.’”

That’s a mystery hard to resist, so Mahony doesn’t. On his arrival, the village reserves its judgement, but Mahony’s charm and charisma soon work their magic on many; a few (the guilty ones) do their best to dissuade his inquiries. Somebody definitely knows what happened to Orla Sweeney, and Mahony will learn the truth.

Mulderrig is peopled with quirky characters: the car-mad publican; the laconic guard; the prickly old actress; the reclusive landlord; the elusive hermit; the heartless former nurse; the reluctant housekeeper; and the obligatory priest. Some are harmless, benign, good; in some, the quirkiness conceals a malignant soul. And those are just the live ones. There’s also a chorus of the dead, whose commentary may or may not be helpful to Mahony’s quest.

Himself is the first novel by London-born author, Jess Kidd. It’s a debut that offers a generous helping of humour, a bit of romance and a good dose of magic. Kidd has a way with words: “Bridget exhales and waves her cigarette at him. ‘What you have to understand, Desmond, is that this is Mahony we’re talking about. He’s a Dublin orphan, which means that he could survive on an iceberg in just his socks. You, on the other hand, are as helpless as a fruit fly out there.’” This outstanding debut ensures that readers will look forward to more from this talented author.
Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine
by Gail Honeyman
brilliant debut novel (6/21/2017)
“Even the circus freak side of my face – my damaged half – was better than the alternative, which would have meant death by fire. I didn’t burn to ashes. I emerged from the flames like a little phoenix. I ran my fingers over the scar tissue, caressing the contours…. There are scars on my heart, just as thick, as disfiguring as those on my face. I know they’re there. I hope some undamaged tissue remains, a patch through which love can come in and flow out. I hope.”

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is the first novel by British author, Gail Honeyman. At thirty years of age, and despite her degree in Classics, Eleanor Oliphant has worked a mundane office job in By Design, a graphic design company in Glasgow for nine years. She has no friends and the people she works with find her strange. But her life is well organised: completely fine, in her opinion, needing nothing. Until, that is, she casts eyes on musician Johnnie Lomond.

Eleanor sets out to attract the love of her life, undergoing several preparatory procedures to ready herself for a potential encounter (waxing, hair, nails, make-up), as well as acquiring the electronic means to do some research on the object of her attention. She is distracted from her task by Raymond Gibbons, the firm’s (rather slovenly) IT consultant, who ropes her into helping an old man who has fallen in the street. Eleanor is sure he’s drunk but “…Even alcoholics deserve help, I suppose, although they should get drunk at home, like I do, so that they don’t cause anyone else any trouble. But then, not everyone is as sensible and considerate as me.”

Honeyman gives the reader a moving tale that includes a good dose of humour. Eleanor is a complex character: socially inept but generally unaware of it, often remarking on the lack of manners that others display: “’You don’t look like a social worker,’ I said. She stared at me but said nothing. Not again! In every walk of life, I encounter people with underdeveloped social skills with alarming frequency. Why is it that client-facing jobs hold such allure for misanthropes…”

Yet Eleanor is often insightful, although she can also be naïve: “After all, how hard could it be? … If I could perform scansion on the Aeneid, if I could build a macro in an Excel spreadsheet, if I could spend the last nine birthdays and Christmases and New Year’s Eves alone, then I’m sure I could manage to organize a delightful festive lunch for thirty people on a budget of ten pounds per capita”

Her literal interpretation of what people say often makes for laugh-out-loud moments, and her observations can be shrewd: “She had tried to steer me towards vertiginous heels again – why are these people so incredibly keen on crippling their female customers? I began to wonder if cobblers and chiropractors had established fiendish cartel.”

This brilliant debut novel touches on childhood neglect, physical cruelty and emotional abuse, as well as repressed memories and survivor guilt. It highlights the value of a skilled counsellor and the importance of care and understanding, friendship and love. Recommended!
The Zookeeper's Wife: A War Story
by Diane Ackerman
A fascinating true story. (5/20/2017)
“One of the most remarkable things about Antonina was her determination to include play, animals, wonder, curiosity, marvel, and a wide blaze of innocence in a household where all dodged the ambient dangers, horrors, and uncertainties. That takes a special stripe of bravery rarely valued in wartime”

The Zookeeper’s Wife is the eleventh book by American author, Diane Ackerman. It is non-fiction, but often reads like a novel, a plain narrative with spurts of lush descriptive prose, for example: “In a country under a death sentence, with seasonal cues like morning light or drifting constellations hidden behind shutters, time changed shape, lost some of its elasticity, and Antonina wrote that her days grew even more ephemeral and ‘brittle, like soap bubbles breaking’”

It tells the story of Antonina Zabinska and her husband, Director of the Warsaw Zoo, Jan Zabinski. When Poland is occupied by the Nazis in 1939, the animals that aren’t killed during bombing raids are stolen by Berlin zookeepers, and Jan and Antonina need something else to keep them busy. As the zoo cycles through different legitimate incarnations (pig farm, fur farm), the one business that is soon a constant, very much behind the scenes, is the concealment of Jews trying to escape the Ghetto and Nazi persecution.

After initial descriptions of the time before occupation, the bulk of the story tells of the Guests that passed through the Zabinski’s Villa, both human and animal, with all their quirks, traits and oddities. Sometimes the text does get a bit bogged down in details (insect collections, sculpture, extinct species and back breeding), but the ingenuity of these brave people is amazing, and their generosity is truly uplifting. As an officer in the Home Army, and very active in the Resistance, Jan is often absent an it is up to Antonina to keep things running smoothly, and facilitate the passage of some three hundred people to safety.

“In prewar days, the villa had harboured more exotic animals, including a pair of baby otters, but the Zabinksis continued their tradition of people and animals coexisting under one roof, over and over welcoming stray animals into their lives and an already stressed household. Zookeepers by disposition, not fate, even in wartime with food scarce, they needed to remain among animals for life to feel true…”

Ackerman’s extensive research is apparent on every page, as well as in the 21 pages of notes on the chapters, the 7-page bibliography and the comprehensive index. She portrays Jan as cool under pressure, demanding and critical, while Antonina comes across as clever and intuitive, but they are hard to connect with, perhaps because Ackerman had to base her tale on diaries and notes. It will be interesting to see what Hollywood does with this tale. A fascinating true story.
The End of the Day
by Claire North
Another brilliant read (5/11/2017)
The End of the Day is the fourth novel by British author, Claire North. After his interview for a new job as the Harbinger of Death, Charlie was pretty sure he wouldn’t get the job, but apparently, the previous Harbinger thoughts he was suited to it, so he did. Charlie is just an ordinary human. Or perhaps not quite so ordinary: it does take someone a bit special to do this job.

There’s a lot of travel involved, often at very short notice, but the staff in the Office at Milton Keynes make all the arrangements and keep his calendar up to date. And it should be no surprise that Death has an Office: it’s a very busy job and someone needs to keep on top of the schedule. Although it’s murder on relationships, one of the perks of Charlie’s job is getting to hear local music and adding to his collection of losing team football T shirts.

Death comes to everyone and everything eventually, but quite often Charlie comes before. He explains to those he visits that he comes sometimes as a courtesy, sometimes as a warning. He often brings a gift, although he is usually unaware of its significance. He considers it a privilege to honour the living before the end comes. Many he visits are unsurprised; some are angry and try to refuse, but he explains that whether or not Charlie does his job, Death will come.

Now and then, Charlie runs into the other Harbingers (Pestilence, Famine, War), but mostly it’s a fairly solitary job. People often ask him about Death, but his answers usually fail to satisfy, and occasionally provoke a more violent reaction. And just sometimes, Charlie can’t help getting involved, whether or not that is wise.

Once again, North has come up with an original and very imaginative tale that often takes quite unexpected turns and naturally features, given the subject matter, some moments of rather dark humour. North easily captures the feel of the many locations to which Death sends the Harbinger. Some of Charlie’s encounters are bound to uplift, while other interactions, and the undercurrent represented by snippets of conversation and opinion, are definitely thought-provoking. It’s clever and interesting and there’s certainly a Terry Pratchett feel to it all. Another brilliant read that will have fans eager for more from this talented author.
Still Life with Tornado
by A.S. King
original and different: it’s clever and thought-provoking (5/6/2017)
“Maybe I pretend that my family is normal when I know it’s not normal to have a runaway brother. Maybe my whole life I’ve been living inside of an imaginary painting. I can’t figure out how I feel about this. But I know I feel uncomfortable. All the time”

Still Life with Tornado is the eighth novel by American author, A.S. King. Sixteen-year-old Sarah has always loved art, and she’s good at it. But something happened at school, and now she can’t draw at all. And nothing ever happens there anyway, everything is always the same, nothing new or original, so she begins to skip classes. It eventually becomes apparent than an act of theft and wilful vandalism has set in motion an existential crisis.

As a truant Sarah wanders the streets of Philadelphia, she encounters other versions of herself: aged ten, then aged twenty-three and later, forty. Conversations with her other selves lead her to recall the events of the family’s Mexican vacation six years earlier, the vacation that triggered her brother Bruce’s disappearance. Sarah benefits from the clear, innocent perspective of her 10 year old self, the cynicism of her 23 year old self and the wisdom of her 40 year old self.

King employs three distinct narratives: sixteen year old Sarah relates present-day events, while ten year old Sarah’s account of the Mexican vacation slowly reveals the cause of Bruce’s exile. Helen’s view of her marriage to Chet completes the picture of a family destined for crisis. There’s a bit of magical reality going on (the four Sarahs) but it’s deftly done and not so weird as to be completely bizarre. Watching her ten year old self in the gallery: “I see her looking around for the security guard. I remember being her and thinking ‘just one touch’ as if touching the same thing Picasso touched would give her the talent to become him”.


What at first seems to be a book about teen angst goes much deeper: psychological abuse, domestic violence, sexual predators, bullying, homelessness, friendship and loyalty also feature. King skilfully builds her tale, gradually revealing the true situation as her protagonist’s appreciation of the facts develops. Eventually Sarah sees how it really is between her parents: “’Good,’ they say in unison. And then they look annoyed that they said something in unison. Then they fake smile at each other, but I’m starting to understand that smiling is really just another way of baring one’s teeth”.

This is a novel that is original and different: it’s clever and thought-provoking, and is bound to have wider appeal than the Young Adult genre in which it sits. Recommended.
The Devil and Miss Prym: A Novel of Temptation
by Paulo Coelho
tedious and a bit clumsy (4/28/2017)
The Devil and Miss Prym is the third book in the On the Seventh Day series by Brazilian author, Paulo Coelho. It is translated into English by Amanda Hopkinson and Nick Caistor. As old Berta sits on her verandah watching, a stranger arrives in the town of Viscos, a man who comes to stay a week, and brings the devil. Chantal Prym, barmaid at the only hotel in town, is intrigued when the stranger wants to show her something in the woods.

The gold bar buried near the Y shaped stone would let Chantal leave town and get on with a decent life. The other ten bars, hidden elsewhere, would ease the pressures on the town. All she has to do to have that gold bar is to tell the town they need to commit a murder by the end of the week. If they do it, they get to keep the ten bars. But Viscos is a town of good people: surely, they would not?

There you have it: a totally unrealistic premise used as a vehicle for debate on Good and Evil. Viscos is a conveniently small, isolated town full of older people, no children. The oldest resident, widow Berta has, conveniently, no family or friends, and is visited only by the ghost of her late husband. The youngest, Chantal is, conveniently, an orphan, completely unattached. The stranger is, conveniently, rich, powerful, tortured and believes himself to be a good man.

The story is filled with anecdotes: parables heavy on message, moralistic lessons lacking subtlety, hypotheticals built on an artificial situation. Good and Evil feature frequently, angels and devils play important roles. The characters are stereotypes. The whole thing is tedious and a bit clumsy.
The End: A Series of Unfortunate Events #13
by Lemony Snicket
Ends not with a bang… (4/24/2017)
The End is the thirteenth and final book in A Series of Unfortunate Events by American author, Lemony Snicket (aka Daniel Handler). As we once again join the unlucky Baudelaire orphans, they find themselves, much to their dismay, in a boat with Count Olaf.

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

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

This instalment sees the Baudelaires shipwrecked on a coastal shelf, shown kindness, offered a safe place, not forced into anything, and yet… The orphans live amongst a group of castaways but end up having to take sides in a schism. They learn about moral compasses, and that dreaded Medusoid Mycelium reappears. They assist with a birth and are witness to two deaths. Readers hoping for the answers to all unexplained issues will be sorely disappointed. Readers who have not yet exhausted their appetite for Snicket/Handler’s writing may like to avail themselves of an associated work, The Beatrice Letters. Ends not with a bang…
Dead Lions
by Mick Herron
Another brilliant read! (4/21/2017)
Dead Lions is the second novel in the Slough House series by British author, Mick Herron. Slough House is where the spook screw-ups from MI5 who, for some reason or other, can’t be sacked, are sent. There they are set such tedious, mind-numbing tasks it’s hoped they will be fed-up enough to quit. Slough House doesn’t have a big staff, currently just seven under the control of Jackson Lamb. They had a bit of unexpected action a few months ago, so there are empty desks and a few new faces.

Ordinarily, there are no ops from Slough House: the Slow Horses can’t be trusted with anything that matters. But the recent death, on a bus, of Cold War spy, Dickie Bow has Jackson Lamb looking closer, and soon his smartest young spy, River Cartwright is in place in a sleepy Cotswolds village trying to track down a Russian agent. Meanwhile, two of Lamb’s slow horses are seconded by River’s nemesis at Regent’s Park, James (Spider) Webb, for “babysitting” duty in Russian oil talks. Is there a connection?

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 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 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 and a half further volumes of this series for their entertainment and enjoyment. Another brilliant read!
The Shadow Land
by Elizabeth Kostova
A superlative read (4/12/2017)
“The photos were mainly black-and-white, some brown or yellowish sepia. Several of the images looked very old; these were wedding groups in stiff clothing with something Eastern about it, young people staring transfixed into futures now long past”

The Shadow Land is the third novel by American author, Elizabeth Kostova. In May, 2008, Alexandra Boyd leaves her North Carolina home and her job as a librarian to take up a teaching position at the Central English Institute in Sofia, Bulgaria. But on her very first day in the country, through a mix-up, she ends up with a bag not her own, one that contains an urn of ashes. Alexandra is distraught at the thought that Stoyan Lazarov’s family are heading to the Velin Monastery in Rila without his remains.

Her taxi driver, Asparuh Iliev (just call me Bobby) obligingly returns her to the spot where the unfortunate mishap took place, to no avail. A visit to the Police Station sets them on a path that becomes almost a quest: a quest to see the urn returned to the family. In the process of this far-from-straightforward mission, they learn a great deal about the life of the man whose remains they are carrying with them.

As well as the third person narrative of present day events from Alexandra’s perspective, there are some chapters describing her motivation for travelling to Bulgaria. Stoyan Lazarov’s story is told to Alexandra and Bobby, both by others, in anecdotes often second- or third-hand, (usually translated by Bobby) and by Stoyan’s own account, written as a confession, that details the important milestones in his life from 1940 onwards.

Kostova gives the reader a tale that has it all: mystery, romance, history, politics and corruption, a secret compartment, labour camps, violins and a faithful, heroic dog. All this rendered is gorgeous descriptive prose. The protagonist’s quest takes the reader on a tour of Bulgaria while subtly informing about a shocking history not commonly known. Kostova’s original plot has several twists that even the most astute reader is unlikely to anticipate. Tension-filled pages build up to a very exciting climax, and several of the multi-faceted characters are not what they at first seem to be.

Kostova’s extensive research and her familiarity with Bulgaria, her politics, her history and her customs, are apparent on every page, as is her love for the Bulgarian people and the landscape: “On every horizon Alexandra saw mountains, some of which were blue and very distant, beyond a great plain. Others were closer and rubbed with darkness, like long smudges of soot”. This inspirational story demonstrates what one will do to endure. The Shadow Land is intriguing and informative, but also moving and very uplifting. A superlative read.

Support BookBrowse

Become a Member and discover books that entertain, engage & enlighten!

Join Today!

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: The Story of Arthur Truluv
    The Story of Arthur Truluv
    by Elizabeth Berg
    Elizabeth Berg's heartwarming novel scored an an impressive 4.4 average rating from the 48 members ...
  • Book Jacket: The Last Ballad
    The Last Ballad
    by Wiley Cash
    Ella May WigginsA hundred years ago or so, farming land west of Charlotte, North Carolina was given over to giant ...
  • Book Jacket: Future Home of the Living God
    Future Home of the Living God
    by Louise Erdrich
    Louise Erdrich began Future Home of the Living God in 2002, set it aside, and picked it up again in ...

Book Discussion
Book Jacket
The Second Mrs. Hockaday by Susan Rivers

At once a love story, a history lesson and a beautifully written tale of forgiveness.

About the book
Join the discussion!

First Impressions

  • Book Jacket

    The Story of Arthur Truluv
    by Elizabeth Berg

    An emotionally powerful novel from New York Times bestselling author Elizabeth Berg.
    Reader Reviews

Who Said...

Flaming enthusiasm, backed up by horse sense and persistence, is the quality that most frequently makes for ...

Click Here to find out who said this, as well as discovering other famous literary quotes!

Word Play

Solve this clue:

E Dog H I D

and be entered to win..

Books that     
entertain,
     engage

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.