Reviews by Cloggie Downunder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another novel that is characteristically Anne Tyler: funny, moving, thought-provoking and, again, quite brilliant.

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