Reviews by Cloggie Downunder

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Unsheltered: A Novel
by Barbara Kingsolver
an interesting, thought-provoking and eminently enjoyable read (10/12/2018)
Unsheltered is the ninth novel by best-selling, prize-winning American novelist, essayist, and poet, Barbara Kingsolver. Now in her fifties, Willa Knox never expected to be living in a run-down house in Vinelands, New Jersey, still the hub of a family that includes her two adult children, her new grandson, her debilitated, demanding father-in-law and an ageing dog.

Virtually unemployed, Willa is writing some freelance articles; her university professor husband Iano has a low-paid teaching job; her recently-widowed son Deke is juggling single fatherhood with setting up a personal financial advice company; her daughter Tig has abandoned college for protest action; her father-in-law Nick needs urgent medical care; and due to a lack of foundations, the house she inherited is literally starting to fall apart. Any sort of windfall, though not expected, would be helpful.

Some hundred and forty years earlier, Thatcher Greenwood has moved from Boston to teach science at Vinelands High School. Newly married to Rose, he has taken on the responsibility of both his late father-in-law’s family and house. His bright young sister-in-law, Polly is a bonus, whereas Rose’s mother, Aurelia falls into quite a different category. The house is not as sound as Aurelia believes, and his teaching position is a source of great frustration, as the school’s principal undermines his every attempt to infuse his students with current scientific knowledge.

The timelines alternate between chapters with the events of the 1870s told from Thatcher’s perspective, while Willa narrates the story set in 2015/6. Kingsolver uses a clever device to bridge the chapter: the final words of one chapter form the heading of the next. Between the narratives, parallels and echoes abound, and not just the residency at 744 East Plum Street. And with them, Kingsolver deftly demonstrates that many of the challenges we think we’re facing for the first time are by no means unique or new phenomena.

Kingsolver is highly skilled at creating believable characters: she writes about ordinary people facing everyday challenges, and yet, the reader can’t help but be enthralled. These are people who face hardships yet still worry about the greater good, about their country and the world. Their dialogue is credible, their relationships, realistic, and while there is naturally some friction between certain characters, their interactions (between couples, friends, siblings, parents/children, in-laws) are often entertaining.

Kingsolver’s depiction of these pre-Trump-era characters who have made good decisions, doing the right thing and working hard all their lives, and still ending up effectively on the poverty line, is absolutely spot-on. Her analysis of the mindset of those who support Trump (who remains unnamed herein) is astute and insightful. “…we’re overdrawn at the bank, at the level of our species, but we don’t want to hear it. So if it’s not this exact prophet of self-indulgence we’re looking to for reassurance, it will be some other liar who’s good at distracting us from the truth. Because of the times we’re in.”

Kingsolver gives Tig the voice of caution, making her intelligent, perceptive and articulate. If some readers feel this has a preachy tone to it, well, perhaps that’s because nothing else has worked and the situation is truly becoming dire. But it’s not all doom and gloom: there are also plenty of laugh-out-loud moments in the conversations; and if those nations that consider themselves highly developed could take a leaf out of the book of a country that has had no choice but to curb their consumerism/materialism, then Cuba apparently has much to teach us all.

As always, Kingsolver’s descriptive prose is exquisite, and her love of nature is apparent throughout, as is her concern for the state of the nation and of the world. Again, she gives the reader an interesting, thought-provoking and eminently enjoyable read.
A Spark of Light
by Jodi Picoult
yet another informative, insightful and thought-provoking read. (9/26/2018)
A Spark of Light is the twenty-third novel by popular American author, Jodi Picoult. In Jackson, Mississippi, a women’s clinic that provides, amongst other services, abortions is targeted daily by pro-life campaigners. They harass the staff and the clients as they enter and leave. But today is different: a gunman has entered the building and begun shooting.

Trained police hostage negotiator, Detective Lieutenant Hugh McElroy is soon on the scene to talk to the gunman, but within minutes learns that his daughter, Wren and his sister, Bex are inside the clinic along with other innocent hostages. As he tries to reason with the shooter, those inside struggle to help the injured without further enraging their captor.

The day’s events, as they unfold over ten hours, are told in reverse, with an epilogue resolving the dramatic end of the first chapter. As the story follows the path that directs each character to their destiny at the Clinic, their thoughts and dialogue give the reader a deep appreciation of their nature, their challenges, their passions. The shooter’s motivation and the series of events that leads up to his shocking actions illustrates how easily misunderstanding, desperation, a deficit of compassion and happenstance together can end in tragedy.

Picoult never hesitates to tackle controversial topics, nor does she in this latest work. The main issue is, of course, abortion, but many other related topics feature: the legal obstacles, the reason doctors and nurses work in these clinics, the for and against arguments, the situations where abortion seems appropriate, the fallacies that are spouted by pro-lifers, inequity between laws that protect the foetus and those protecting the mother, the legal inconsistencies between states, the import of illegal abortion drugs from China, and even the semantics surrounding the issue.

While many will feel that her treatment of the topic is balanced, Picoult’s latest novel is bound to polarise readers. The depth of her research is apparent and she backs it up with an extensive bibliography. In the Author’s Note, Picoult gives a succinct quote regards pro-lifer activities from a woman who has had an abortion: “I don’t need people shaming me because of a choice that already hurt my heart to have to make.” Picoult gives the reader yet another informative, insightful and thought-provoking read.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by Allen & Unwin.
The Clockmaker's Daughter: A Novel
by Kate Morton
Classic Kate Morton. (9/24/2018)
The Clockmaker’s Daughter is the sixth novel by Australian author, Kate Morton. When bank archivist Elodie Winslow opens a long-forgotten box, she’s fascinated by the contents, in particular a leather satchel containing a sketch book and a photograph of a beautiful young woman. While it should relate somehow to the founder of Stratton, Cadwell & Co., James Stratton, it is apparent that some items belonged to nineteenth-century-artist, Edward Radcliffe. But one sketch especially resonates with Elodie: she’s convinced it is the place of her mother’s bedtime stories.

Edward had purchased Birchwood Manor because he felt a strong connection with the place. The plan had been for the Magenta brotherhood to spend the summer of 1862 there, engaged in artistic pursuits. But the intruder who shot and killed Edward’s fiancée, Fanny Brown, had put a premature end to that.

Edward's utter devastation was to be expected after such a tragedy. The precious Radcliffe Blue was now missing, and the Police report implicated Edward’s most recent model, a woman going by the name of Lily Millington, but not everyone believed that version of events. What really happened? And did it have anything to do with the satchel, the sketch book and the photograph that Elodie had found?

Morton's latest offering weaves the stories of many characters, in the form of anecdotes, vignettes or short stories in themselves, together into one epic tale that spans over a hundred and fifty years, and that ultimately reveals the answers to mysteries and connections, to each other, and to the house. Such an epic needs many narrators, so the cast is not small, even including a ghost, and yet there are often barely a few degrees of separation between them. Morton does tend to use coincidence, which can occasionally make the final reveal seem contrived, but readers familiar with her work will be aware of what to expect.

There is no lack of parallels between the lives of various characters and while it is easy to hope for the best for those whose stories are told, some (Ada, Lucy, Winston) hold particular appeal and, for most readers, young Tip will be the stand-out favourite. There are some suitably nasty characters as well, one whose idea of friendship leaves much to be desired. This is a story with twists and red herrings, with grief and guilt, with theft and treasure and hidden spaces, with love of many sorts and a heart-warming ending. Classic Kate Morton.
Force of Nature: A Novel
by Jane Harper
another excellent example of Aussie Crime Fiction (9/20/2018)
“It wasn’t any one thing that went wrong, it was a hundred little things. It all kept adding up until it was just too late.”

Force of Nature is the second book in the Aaron Falk series by award-winning Australian journalist and author, Jane Harper. A late-night call has AFP agent Aaron Falk and his Financial Intelligence Unit partner Carmen Cooper heading for the Giralong Ranges. A corporate team-building weekend has gone wrong and one of the participants, Alice Russell, is missing. Alice is the whistle-blower in their current case, so Falk and Cooper are concerned that her actions have been exposed to their target, resulting in some sort of retaliatory action.

But when they arrive, the local Police Sergeant shares his own concerns: that Alice may be a victim of Sam Kovac, the son of notorious serial killer, Martin Kovac, whose killing field was in the Giralang Ranges. And as they question the remaining members of the party, they become aware of just how unpopular Alice was with her colleagues. Could she have come to harm at their hands? Or has the pressure simply become too much, prompting her to disappear off the scene? Has it anything to do with certain photos and clips spreading on social media?

Falk’s second outing is easily as fine as his first. The narrative alternates between Falk’s observations as he investigates, and the account of events during the weekend from the perspective of each of the four remaining participants. It soon becomes apparent that none of those questioned is completely candid about what happened, or what they know. The storyline is highly credible, with several twists and red herrings keeping the reader guessing right up to the exciting climax.

Harper effortlessly evokes the Australian winter mountain landscape, and her characters are typical of those one might encounter in an office environment. Falk’s inner monologue and his dialogue with Cooper give the reader insight into his career choice and personal history, and reinforce his integrity. This is another excellent example of Aussie Crime Fiction and, whether or not it features Aaron Falk, more from Jane Harper will be eagerly anticipated.
The Dry
by Jane Harper
certainly lives up to the hype (9/15/2018)
The Dry is the first book in the Aaron Falk series by award-winning Australian journalist and author, Jane Harper. After twenty years away, AFP agent Aaron Falk returns to drought-stricken rural Victoria for the funeral of his one-time best friend, Luke Hadler. All of Kiewarra is there to bury Luke, Karen and little Billy, but few of them are glad to see Falk.

Falk’s field is financial crimes, so Luke’s mother asks him to look into a possible alternative to the foregone conclusion of murder-suicide that seems to have been reached by the detectives from Clyde. And neither is Kiewarra’s own cop, Sergeant Greg Raco, entirely convinced by this explanation. There are enough discrepancies in the facts that Falk decides to stay a few days, to see if he can cast light on this awful tragedy. He owes Luke’s memory and his parents at least that much.

But Falk and his father left Kiewarra under a cloud when, at sixteen, his dear friend Ellie Deacon drowned in the Kiewarra River. While no one was ever charged, Falk had his suspicions then about who was responsible: are they affecting his impartiality now? Are there reasons to think the crimes are related?

During his informal investigation, Falk connects with townsfolk, reconnects with old friends and old enemies, and it is soon apparent that the ill will from his teens has been comprehensively reawakened.

Against the backdrop of a struggling country town, Harper gives the reader twin mysteries: a cold case and one still dominating the town’s consciousness. Multiple narrators give a variety of perspectives, eventually revealing the truth about both these wretched events. Harper’s characters are believably flawed: there are no saints here, and many of them harbour secrets. Falk’s loyalty to his friends is tinged with doubt and suspicion.

Harper’s Kiewarra easily evokes the typical country town with its small mindedness, its secrets, its rumour mill and the lightning spread of gossip, and a lack of the anonymity often felt in cities. This is a tale that is fast-paced, with an exciting climax and twists and red herrings that will keep even the most astute reader guessing until the final chapters. Harper’s debut novel certainly lives up to the hype, so interest in Aaron Falk’s second outing, Force of Nature, is bound to be high.
Whistle in the Dark
by Emma Healey
Healey’s second novel is at least as good as her debut. (7/26/2018)
“Jen felt a sudden exhaustion from the burden of the love she felt for Lana. Why did she have to drag this love around everywhere when, sometimes, she’d like to leave it behind for a few hours? Without that love, she could float away, let her daughter’s mood improve, let her put her frown and her sharp tongue back in their still-shiny packaging. Without that love, she could be light, untethered by their shared genetics, by the memory of Lana as a baby, or by the pride she felt in her wit, even when it was aimed so fiercely at her.”

Whistle in the Dark is the second novel by award-winning British author, Emma Healey. In the last days of a sketching holiday in Derbyshire’s Peak District, Jen wakes to every mother's worst nightmare: her fifteen-year-old daughter is missing. It is four days of worry before Lana is found, bruised and bloody, soaking wet, exhausted and hungry, by a local farmer.

"I can't remember" is her reply to every query. Jen's level-headed husband Hugh is perfectly happy to wait until his daughter remembers of her own accord: she's safe now, and that's all that really matters. Twenty-six-year-old Meg is convinced that her sister’s amnesia is just more of Lana’s attention-seeking behaviour.

But over the following days and weeks, Jen notes changes in Lana: this is not the teen she went away with. Whatever happened has changed her daughter in ways she can’t always define. She's quite sure she isn't imagining it, and she can’t help her compulsion to learn what those four lost days held for Lana.

Lana is not particularly likeable for much of the book: a typical prickly teen, and there seems to be a bit of sibling rivalry between sisters for Jen’s love and devotion. Jen’s relationship with Lana is not the easiest: “Jen was aware of the hum of paranoia beneath her thoughts, a hum that rose in pitch whenever Lana and she were alone together.”

A natural worrier, Jen is constantly clutching at straws, going to some extraordinary lengths to find out what happened to Lana. Any parent of a teenaged girl would be able to empathise with her, but is her level of concern natural, or does her monitoring of Lana’s tweets, Instagram posts and reading matter amount to stalking?

The reader wants to know too, sure, but sometimes Hugh’s laid-back attitude is less irritating than Jen’s anxiety. But it’s worth persisting, as Jen does, because patience is certainly rewarded with an excellent climax. And some of Jen’s research (viz. alternate uses of condoms) certainly adds humour. Healey’s second novel is at least as good as her debut.
Us Against You: A Beartown Novel
by Fredrik Backman
Moving and thought-provoking (7/21/2018)
Us Against You is the second novel in the Beartown series by Swedish blogger, columnist and author, Fredrik Backman. It is translated from Swedish by Neil Smith. Midsummer in Beartown and there’s no ice hockey to be played, but the events of spring, “the scandal” as some referred to it, still looms large in the town’s collective consciousness. The (unpunished) perpetrator may have left town, but the victim still bears the blame.

When the Regional Councillors decide that the Beartown Bears Ice Hockey Club will be liquidated, a hearty cheer goes up from their rivals, the Hed Hockey team, while the blame is placed firmly on the shoulders of the team’s manager, Peter Andersson and his daughter, Maya. One councillor, however, has plans of his own: a stranger arrives in Beartown on a mission from this politician. His plan brings hope, but is he to be trusted?

In this sequel, all the characters from The Scandal (Beartown #1) feature, but with their backstories expanded, their futures speculated upon and their present reactions to events explored. “Inside every large story there are always plenty of small ones.” Some new and interesting characters also appear. As with the first book, 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 quite a long and 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, there are some lump-in-the-throat moments and many wise words: “Men are busy, but boys don’t stop growing. Sons want their fathers’ attention until the precise moment when fathers want their sons’.” Moving and thought-provoking.
Happiness
by Aminatta Forna
a marvellous read (7/16/2018)
“When he was in London, going to see plays and eating in fine restaurants, the city itself began to feel like a stage set, whose denizens enacted their lives against its magnificent backdrop. A theatre of delights, where nothing surely could go wrong, and if it did, all would be put right by the end of the third act.”

Happiness is the fourth novel by British author, Aminatta Forna. American urban wildlife biologist Jean Turane has been living in London for eighteen months (studying the city’s fox population) when she runs into Dr Attila Asane: literally, the first time, on Waterloo Bridge; metaphorically, thereafter. Within days they have shared drinks and meals and are pooling their resources to search for a runaway ten-year-old boy.

Attila is a psychiatrist, well respected in the field of PTSD, and is in London to give his oft-used keynote speech at a conference. However, he soon finds his free time taken up with the search for Tano, and problems with Rosie Lennox, a former colleague who is now a care facility resident, and with Jean. By the time he makes his speech, the events of the preceding week see him altering it beyond all recognition.

As the events of the week unfold, the thoughts of main characters are drawn back to past incidents so that the reader gradually learns the path that has brought them to London in 2014. Vignettes of the support cast reveal chance connections. As well, they all spend time discussing topics pertinent to their current lives, so the story touches on PTSD, coffees, special diets, the medicalisation of normal emotions, foxes, coyotes, wolves and parakeets.

The City of London itself is a major character in this book: residents and readers familiar with the city will find this an especially enjoyable novel. Forna tells a tale of fortuitous meetings and degrees of separation and good people who go out of their way to help. The gathering of doormen, traffic wardens, street actors, security guards and street sweepers in the search for the boy is especially heart-warming, and Attila’s speech on trauma is enlightening. This is a marvelous read.
The Winner Stands Alone
by Paulo Coelho
a rather tedious read. (6/24/2018)
The Winner Stands Alone is the eighth stand-alone novel by Brazilian author, Paulo Coelho. It is translated from the original Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa. The Cannes Film Festival: Ewa is there with her fashion-designer husband Hamid Hussein for showings and some high-power business meetings; Russian telco president, Igor Malev is there to demonstrate to his ex-wife that she needs to return to their marriage.

Igor’s obsessed with Ewa, and he had promised that if she left him, he would destroy some universes. He’s a cold-blooded killer with no conscience who easily murders random strangers: a young jewellery street vendor, an important and successful movie distributor, a first-time movie producer and a famous movie star, all without remorse. He refers to them as martyrs for love. But then his objective changes.

While the setting is well-portrayed, the plot is contrived and paper-thin, if rather bizarre in places, while the characters are one-dimensional vessels for Coelho’s preachy philosophical rants. Igor is obviously mad but the reader has to wade through chapters of his thought processes.

As the characters pontificate to one another, or to themselves, we get Coelho’s lectures on champagne, SMS messages, models, vanity, money laundering, tanning salons, gyms, police and all the industries commonly found at Cannes: movie, fashion, celebrity, cosmetics, diet, diamond, and marketing.

The whole tone is very moralistic, full of platitudes and aphorisms, and very heavy on message at the expense of good writing. It is repetitive to the point of being tiresome, making this a rather tedious read.
The Weight of Ink
by Rachel Kadish
Stirring and captivating (6/21/2018)
“Nothing of the building’s exterior – not even the stone walls, with their once-giant wingspan – had prepared him for this. The staircase was opulence written in wood. The broad treads ascended between dark carved panels featuring roses and vines and abundant fruit baskets; gazing down from high walls, their faces full of sad, sweet equanimity, were more carved angels. And halfway up the stairs, two arched windows let in a white light so blinding and tremulous, Aaron could swear it had weight. Windows to bow down before, their wrought-iron levers and mullions casting a mesmerizing grid across the carved wood: light and shadow and light again.”

The Weight of Ink is the third novel by American author, Rachel Kadish. In 1657, nineteen-year-old Ester Velasquez and her brother Isaac accompanied Rabbi HaCoen Mendes from Amsterdam to London. The rabbi, tortured and blinded by Inquisitors, was going to minister to London’s Jewish community; the siblings had just been orphaned in a house fire.

Late in the year 2000, history professor Helen Watt is asked to examine a cache of books and papers discovered under a staircase in a 17th Century London mansion. Written in Hebrew and Portuguese, the papers appear to date from the mid-seventeenth century, and concern Jewish refugees from the Inquisition. This is potentially an important find, and Helen engages a young American post-graduate student, Aaron Levy to assist her. Unfortunately, they don’t have exclusive access, and find themselves in a bit of a race to uncover the secrets held within.

As they examine the trove of papers, Helen and Aaron are surprised and excited to find that the scribe for the blind rabbi might have been a woman. Then, in between the lines of letters about false messiahs written in Portuguese, they discover the story, in Hebrew, of Ester Velazquez, a young Jewess educated by HaCoen Mendes (not quite accidentally, because the rabbi sees much despite his blindness), a young woman with an almost unquenchable thirst for philosophical knowledge and for discourse thereon. It’s a thirst so deep that she engages in subterfuge to attempt to satisfy it.

What a superb piece of historical fiction this is. Kadish carefully constructs her tale so that the reader shares the excitement of the small but significant discoveries, of facts slowly revealed, all the while bringing to life the daily routine of London’s seventeenth century Jewish community. The astute reader will, early on, catch the hint of “a gossamer-thin connection” that develops into quite a lovely irony by the end of the story.

Her characters, not necessarily likeable at first, slowly gain in appeal: Helen’s gruff exterior (a colleague describes her thus: “Behind the words she could read his regret that the one to make such a find had been Helen Watt – a dried-up scholar, inconveniently unphotogenic, on the cusp of a mandatory retirement no one but her would rue”) mellows somewhat; Aaron will initially strike the reader as arrogant and self-absorbed but his time with Helen definitely matures him: “How had he ever overlooked shy girls? It struck him that the fact that he wasn’t attracted to them might represent a flaw in his character, not theirs.”

Kadish gives the reader some exquisite descriptive prose: “She looked at him with the directness of someone making an inner calculus over which he was to have no influence” and “Today, when he’d peered under the staircase, it was as though what he’d starved for all these lifeless months of dissertation research had been restored to him. History, reaching out and caressing his face once more, the way it had years ago as he sat reading at his parents’ kitchen table. The gentle insistent touch of something like a conscience, stilling him. Waking him to a lucid new purpose” are examples. Stirring and captivating, this is not a short read, but is worth every minute invested.
How to Stop Time
by Matt Haig
a marvellous read! (6/9/2018)
“…now I often want to climb back into that time before. Before I knew Rose, before I knew what would happen to my mother, before, before, before… To cling to who I was, right at the beginning when I was just a small boy with a long name who responded to time and grew older like everybody else. But there is never a way back into the before. All you can do with the past is carry it around, feeling its weight slowly increase, praying it never crushes you completely.”

How To Stop Time is the sixth adult novel by British author, Matt Haig. Progeria is a condition in which the sufferer ages much faster than normal. Tom Hazard has the opposite: anageria. He ages much more slowly than the rest of us. It's 2020, he's just taken a job as a history teacher in a London high school, and he looks about forty-one. He's actually 439, so he has experienced some of the stuff he's teaching, first hand.

Living so long perhaps sounds like it could be advantageous, but even in the twenty-first century, when witch finders are no longer a threat, failure to develop wrinkles and other signs of ageing attracts notice, and not all of that is benign. This necessitates a nomadic lifestyle, moving on before close ties can form and questions begin to be asked. Falling in love is definitely not a good idea.

“For years now I had convinced myself that the sadness of the memories weighed more and lasted longer than the moments of happiness themselves. So I had, through some crude emotional mathematics, decided it was better not to seek out love or companionship or even friendship. To be a little island in the alba archipelago, detached from humanity’s continent, instead.”

The premise is certainly original and intriguing, and fans of Claire North’s work may notice some plot similarities (high praise). The narrative races around in time and place, but each time and location is clearly stated so this does not lead to confusion, but does allow Haig to give the reader a taste of Elizabethan London, the Roaring Twenties in Los Angeles and Paris, and late 19th Century England, as well as London and Byron Bay in the near future. Tom has brushes with fame, and there are a few star cameos (Shakespeare, F. Scott Fitzgerald). Surfing, a variety of musical instruments, the Plague, and 18th Century Pacific explorers all feature. Tom’s take on the history of “fake news” is particularly interesting. Captivating and moving, this is a marvellous read!
Paint Your Wife
by Lloyd Jones
a delightful read (5/30/2018)
“When you are drawing you are actually learning how to see. You do this through looking. Looking is untarnished glass. No green bits of judgement hanging from the lens. In order to draw you must to learn to see how things are – not how you wish they were, or once were”

Paint Your Wife is the 10th fiction book by New Zealand author, Lloyd Jones. It starts with the mayor of New Egypt, Harry Bryant returning from a visit to his son in London. It is the late 1990s, and Harry’s town, on the North Island of New Zealand, has fallen on hard times. The paint factory has closed up; ideas for tourist attractions fail to gain funding; long-time locals are beginning to abandon the town for more prosperous places. In a last ditch attempt to attract attention, Harry gets Alma Martin to reproduce his old portraits of the town wives in a public space: it generates some outside interest, but also acts as a sort of catalyst for the locals, as does the arrival at Harry’s place of business (Pre-Loved Furnishings and Curios),of a young couple with twins, looking for accommodation.

Alma Martin lives in the old Fire Warden’s cottage on the hill near Harry’s mother’s farm. He has tried his rather talented hand at quite a few things: colour technique at NE Paints; teaching; wartime rat catching; and, in lieu of payment for said rodent extermination, sketching and painting the wives of the town.

His most constant model was his neighbour, Alice Hands, but all the women, once they got the hang of sitting (“It is hard to know what to do with yourself the first time you sit. You are suddenly aware of your arms and legs, too aware, and as soon as that awareness slips into place it’s as if those limbs were never really an integral part of you at all, but clumsy add-ons”) were happy to do so: “As far as the rest of the women in the district were concerned, to be looked at or observed as rare as sugar or chocolate. They could have looked in the mirror, of course. But there is nothing like another’s eyes to set us alight, to make our nerves stand on end, to tell us, in effect, who we are”

They learned to be silent because: “When a sitter begins to talk the pose loses all its binding; arms and legs fall away, the mouth widens, the tongue waggles, a sense of form withers” and enjoyed his attention (“You know something, Alma, when you are drawing I feel like you’re touching me”) and even his talks on art and artists (“It was the war years and everything was in short supply – including stimulation. Like plankton eaters they sat with their mouths and minds wide open”).

Jones gives the reader a cast of charming and often quirky characters; the vignettes that fill in their backstories are captivating; there is plenty of humour and a fair share of wisdom; the feel of the town is well-rendered; the descriptive prose is a joy to read, making it difficult to choose just a few quotes to illustrate this. “In quick time the surrounding farmland revealed itself, straw-coloured, the black flecks of telegraph poles; and on the far edge of everything stood the ranges, in shadow at this time of day, but their jaws dropped open in the February heat” and “Some strain told on the window panes - a tension where the floor went one way and the windows another; it was an arrangement that made the ordinary blue sky sing in the way glass achieves in chapels and courtrooms” and “He tells her that it’s like trying to nail a fast-moving cloud to the one spot in the sky. Hopeless if the sky is moving about too” are good examples.

Alma’s advice on drawing is also superbly expressive: “Light and shadow, he liked to say, are in constant negotiation as to which parts of the world the other can have” and “…seeing is not the same as looking. And in learning how to draw what you really learn is how to see. Once you learn how to see, good or bad or better doesn’t come into it” are just two illustrations of this.

This offering by Jones is a delightful read, moving and uplifting, and loaded with gorgeous prose. This book was originally published in 2004, two years before the prize-winning Mister Pip, but this new edition by Text Publishing has wonderfully evocative cover art by W.H.Chong. Highly recommended.
The Dark Lake
by Sarah Bailey
an excellent debut novel (5/30/2018)
The Dark Lake is the first book in the Gemma Woodstock series by Australian author, Sarah Bailey. When Rosalind Ryan’s body is found in the lake by Smithson Secondary College, Detective Sergeant Gemma Woodstock wants to be on the case, even though it might dredge up some bitter memories for her. Gemma assures her boss that their connection was casual, and she’s fine to handle whatever comes up, but she doesn’t share certain facts that may affect her performance.

Rose taught at Smithson Secondary, and was loved by both students and fellow staff; she was a talented drama teacher and her murder occurred after a first-night performance of her modern adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. The list of those needing to be questioned is extensive: students, family, colleagues and nearby residents. Despite some excellent detective work, progress is slow and helpful evidence appears only sporadically.

Gemma may be a good cop, but she’s no angel: despite living with the devoted father of her young son, she has a sexual relationship with her work partner, DS Felix McKinnon, and that’s just one of the secrets she’s keeping. It soon becomes apparent that the townspeople of Smithson are harbouring quite a few secrets, some as hot as the summer they’re sweltering through.

Bailey crafts her tale with skill: she gives the reader a plot filled with jealousy, infatuation, passion, grief, lust, love and guilt. Clues are drip-fed to reveal twists, tricks and red herrings that keep the reader guessing right through to the explosive climax. With some gorgeous prose, she captures the small country town, the era, the attitudes of the residents with consummate ease. Her characters are multifaceted and easily believable, and their dialogue is what is heard in any small-town school, café, shop or pub. This is an excellent debut novel and readers will be hoping to see more from this talented author.
The Midnight Watch: A Novel of the Titanic and the Californian
by David Dyer
a moving and captivating read (5/19/2018)
The Midnight Watch is the first novel by Australian teacher and author, David Dyer. While the story of the sinking of the SS Titanic in April 1912 will be familiar to most people, the part played in the drama by the master and crew of the SS Californian is probably less well-known. While it is argued about, many accept that the Californian was the ship closest to Titanic when she sank; was, in fact, within sight of Titanic, and did not react when Titanic fired off eight distress rockets at five-minute intervals, except to signal with the Morse lamp. Nor did they try to contact the Titanic via wireless.

Dyer tells the story of what probably happened on the Californian that night, what the master and the crew did, and what occurred on their arrival in Boston, as well as their testimonies at the subsequent US Senate Inquiry in Washington DC and the British Inquiry in London. His narrator is John Steadman, a fictional journalist for the Boston American, whose story was instrumental in forcing master and crew to appear before the Inquiries.

The latter section of the book is a story titled Eight White Rockets, which Steadman has written as “an account the sea tragedy of the Titanic and the Sage Family”, an actual family of eleven which perished in the sinking. Dyer’s story is historical fiction but is based on fact. Many of the characters he fills out for the reader actually existed, and much of what he describes is backed up by witness accounts. Some of it is likely to leave the reader gasping.

Dyer’s expertise in this field is apparent on every page. It should be noted that he spent many years as a lawyer at the London legal practice whose parent firm represented the Titanic’s owners in 1912. He has also worked as a cadet and ship’s officer on a wide range of merchant vessels, having graduated with distinction from the Australian Maritime College. His talent as an author ensures that this already-fascinating story takes on a human aspect. As well as being interesting and informative, this is a moving and captivating read.
Please Ignore Vera Dietz
by A.S. King
A moving and thought-provoking read. (5/12/2018)
Please Ignore Vera Dietz is the second novel by American author, A.S. King. We first meet Vera Dietz when she is almost eighteen, a Senior at High School and working forty hours a week as a Pizza Delivery Technician. Her ex-best friend-since-age-four, Charlie Kahn is just days dead, her mother left six years ago with the podiatrist, and the most suitable word Vera can find from her Vocab class to describe her accountant father is parsimonious.

Even if Vera is still angry about the betrayal that ended their friendship five months earlier, she misses Charlie. How can she not when a thousand copies of him fill her dead space whenever she is alone? She knows he wants her to clear his name, but she’s not quite ready to do that yet.

So she distracts herself with her attractive twenty-three-year-old co-worker at Pagoda Pizza, James; and, despite her father’s alcoholic history, with bottles of vodka. At school she sends out “please ignore Vera Dietz” vibes, trying to remain under the radar of one very toxic Jenny Flight and her Detentionhead loser friends, on whom she blames Charlie’s defection and death.

The story of just what happened between Vera and Charlie is told through a split narrative: present day and seven years earlier, with occasional interjections by Ken Dietz (flow-charts a feature), the now-dead Charlie Kahn, and a local landmark, the Pagoda. King’s plot is wholly plausible, and her characters are familiar from any American town. King touches on domestic violence, sexual perversion, and teen alcoholism and drug use.

King is skilled at portraying adolescent characters. Vera is likeable: her relationship with her father and with Charlie are a delight; her dilemmas and issues are realistic; and her strength and maturity are both surprising and gratifying. This reissue from Text Publishing has an eye-catching cover design by Imogen Stubbs. A moving and thought-provoking read.
Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows
by Balli Kaur Jaswal
Funny, moving and thought-provoking, this is a great read! (4/17/2018)
“It would be easier to be a criminal fairly prosecuted by the law than an Indian daughter who wronged her family. A crime would be punishable by a jail sentence of definite duration rather than this uncertain length of family guilt trips.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rather than being numbered, the chapters are meaningfully titled from the text. Enclosed within an evocative Hopper Nighthawks-esque cover, this funny, moving and thought-provoking novel is a brilliant sequel to Norwegian By Night.
The Beatrice Letters: A Series of Unfortunate Events
by Lemony Snicket
Disappointing. (2/16/2018)
The Beatrice Letters is a short book in A Series of Unfortunate Events by American author, Lemony Snicket (aka Daniel Handler). It consists of twelve items of correspondence between Lemony Snicket and Beatrice Buadelaire, who is apparently the sister of Violet, Klaus and Sunny Baudelaire, and a letter to his editor. While it is difficult to make any sense at all out of this, frankly, bizarre collection, Snicket does display his love of whacky definitions and wordplay like puns and anagrams. The items include calling cards, a poem, a telegram and letters: typed, hand-written and of the punch-out variety, this last allowing for plenty of games with homonyms. Separating these items are colour-plates of shipwrecks, caves and certain relevant(?) objects. There is probably some cleverness in there somewhere, but not enough to justify the price unless you are a die-hard Series of Unfortunate Events fan. Disappointing.

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