Reviews by Cloggie Downunder

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A God in Ruins: A Todd Family Novel
by Kate Atkinson
Another brilliant Atkinson novel! (1/12/2016)
A God in Ruins is a book of the Todd Family by award-winning British author, Kate Atkinson. Teddy Todd: younger brother of Ursula, favourite son of Sylvie, model for his Aunt Izzie’s best-selling books, the young man whose life was cut short when he was shot down over Germany in 1944. Or not. During that dreadful war, Teddy never thought about the future: as a bomber pilot flying missions over Germany, he didn’t expect to have one.

When he came home as an ex-POW in 1945, a hero, he suddenly, quite unexpectedly, did have a future in front of him. A career (not in his father’s bank, please!), a wife, fatherhood, grandchildren: all were ahead of him in the latter half of the twentieth century.

Teddy’s war experience plays a large part in the novel, as it does in his life. But Teddy is not the only narrator of his tale: his parents, his siblings, his spouse, his child and his grandchildren all add to the story of Teddy’s unexpected life from their own perspective.

Once again Atkinson gives the reader a set of wholly believable characters, flawed but nonetheless appealing, and their reactions to the challenges life throws at them are natural and credible. And perhaps even the nasty ones have their reasons. There is plenty of humour to counter the lump-in-the-throat moments, and the irony of Ursula’s opinion on reincarnation is quite delicious. And again, Atkinson’s extensive research is apparent in every chapter.

A God in Ruins is a companion volume to Atkinson’s earlier Todd Family book and, while it is not necessary to have read Life After Life before reading A God in Ruins, there are so many common characters, events and objects that the reader who has done so will be delighted to once again encounter old friends. Another brilliant Atkinson novel! Recommended.
Life After Life
by Kate Atkinson
Another brilliant offering from this exceptional author (1/4/2016)
Life After Life is a book of the Todd Family by award-winning British author, Kate Atkinson. Ursula Todd is born during a snowstorm on the night of 11th February, 1910. She does this again and again, and this fact (amongst others) remains constant throughout the telling of Ursula’s lives, but, of course, there are also differences.

When, seemingly through chance, she does survive her birth, and the trials and potentially fatal mishaps that plague her childhood, Ursula’s lives revolve around the family that inhabits Fox Corner, parents, siblings, a rather wild paternal aunt who visits, neighbours and friends.

As an adult, Ursula’s life, along with those around her, is profoundly affected by war. Her favourite brother, Teddy loses his life when he is shot down over Berlin. But is there something she can do to stop seemingly inevitable events from occurring?

What a talented author Kate Atkinson is! She explores the idea that one might be able to change history, given enough chances, and does so in a familiar setting, with characters that easily find their way into the reader’s heart (well, except for Maurice, that is). Add to that the interesting perspectives of certain well-known events: the London Blitz from the perspective of an Air Raid Precautions warden; the bombing of Berlin from the point of view of the German common people.

Atkinson’s depth of research is apparent in every chapter. Each of Ursula’s incarnations reveals a little more of the family, their history and character, as well as historic events like the influenza epidemic of 1918. From a literary perspective, the use of multiple incarnations is a novel device that allows her to try out a multitude of different life events with just one character.

While this is nothing like her Jackson Brodie books, fans of her work will not be disappointed. Luckily, they will be able to extend the pleasure (and get another dose of the Todd family and Fox Corner) in the companion volume, A god In Ruins. Another brilliant offering from this exceptional author.
The Carnivorous Carnival: Book the Ninth (A Series of Unfortunate Events)
by Lemony Snicket, Brett Helquist
much appeal for younger readers, (12/14/2015)
The Carnivorous Carnival is the ninth 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 are trapped in the trunk of Count Olaf’s car as it travels to the Hinterlands down the Rarely Ridden Road to consult Madame Lulu at the Caligari Carnival. Once there, and unable to contact their banker, ever-tussive Mr Poe by phone, they need to adopt a disguise so that they are not recognised by Olaf and his cronies. As a two-headed man and a wolf-baby, they become part of the Freak Show.

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, 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 bites.

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 poked fun at by the Carnival audience, learning that one of their parents may have survived that fatal fire, discovering a fraud, narrowly escaping the a mob’s violent urges and, against their better judgement, joining forces with Count Olaf. Snicket does a clever thing with “déjà vu” in chapter five, but the utter stupidity of the adults around the Baudelaires is a constant theme that is starting to wear a little thin.

Will Violet and Klaus be able to find the headquarters of the VFD in the Mortmain Mountains? Will they be able to catch up with Count Olaf, his cronies and their baby sister Sunny? Will they discover the contents of the missing Snicket file? Readers will have to read the next instalment, The Slippery Slope, to find out.
Slade House
by David Mitchell
another excellent offering from this talented author. (12/13/2015)
Slade House is the seventh novel by British author, David Mitchell. Slade House is a haunted house with a difference. It is not easily found, nor can just anyone get in. But once every nine years, at the end of Otober, a guest enters from Slade Alley through a mysteriously transient black iron door, and a good time is had by all, for a while, at least. And then….

Mitchell divides his tale into five chapters. Each is set nine years apart, and events are narrated by the guest (except for the last chapter). These events follow a pattern, and there are many common elements, but the differences are significant and important. And while it is quite apparent what will happen by the second chapter, the finer details and nuances are expanded in each chapter.

This novel has an interesting and clever plot with a few twists. The characters are believable and their dialogue natural. Mitchell establishes the era easily with seamless references to politics, popular music and film, literature and current affairs. The genre is described as horror, although it is not of the blood-thirsty variety. It can easily be read as a stand-alone, but does have characters and features in common with other Mitchell novels, in particular The Bone Clocks, so fans of Mitchell’s work will enjoy placing these in their original context. Shorter than his usual, this is, nonetheless, another excellent offering from this talented author.
Above the Waterfall
by Ron Rash
A brilliant read. (11/9/2015)
“Though sunlight tinges the mountains, black leather-winged bodies swing low. First fireflies blink languidly. Beyond this meadow, cicadas rev and slow like sewing machines. All else is ready for night except night itself. I watch the last light lift off level land. Ground shadows seep and thicken. Circling trees form banks. The meadow itself becomes a pond filling, on its surface dozens of black-eyed susans”

This, the first paragraph of Ron Rash’s sixth novel, assures readers that they are, once again, in for a feast of beautiful prose. While his evocative descriptions of place confirm Rash’s love of the Appalachia, this award-winning American author works the same magic on his characters, and not just the major ones. Be they strong or weak, principled or easily corrupted, it soon becomes apparent that he cares just as much for the people that populate the North Carolina mountains.

His tale covers a five-day period during which Les, a sheriff about to retire, deals not only with meth addicts, but also a fish-kill at a local upmarket Resort. It seems from video evidence and earlier confrontations that Gerald Blackwelder, an elderly widower with a bad heart, is responsible. But Becky Shytle, the Park Ranger with whom Les has a tentative relationship, is convinced that Gerald is innocent. Of course, Les knows that Becky has been wrong about a man before.

This novel is not about the mystery, the who of which is relatively obvious, the how and why, fairly easily solved, but about the characters and their interaction. The first person narrative is shared by Les and Becky: distinguishing between the two is easy when one pays attention to the context; but Rash also uses different styles of narrative, giving Becky a much more lyrical voice, a poetic way with words. Les muses: “You can see heaven all around us, Preacher Waldorp claimed. But Mist Creek Valley would soon confirm that the same was true of hell”, while Becky describes her night under the stars thus: “Above me that night, tiny lights brightened and dimmed, brightened and dimmed. Photinus carolinus. Fireflies synchronized to make a single meadow-wide flash, then all dark between. Like being inside the earth’s pulsing heart”

Rash touches on a myriad of topics: depression, guilt, post-traumatic stress, the divide between legal and moral, loyalty, and the strength of the bond with place. “I’d seen others besides C.J.’s great-uncle leave houses where they and their families had lived for generations. They’d enter nursing homes or move in with sons or daughters. Like I told C.J., you’d be going to their funerals within six months”

Readers new to Rash’s work are sure to want to seek out his backlist; fans will not be disappointed with this latest work. A brilliant read.
If I Fall, If I Die
by Michael Christie
A remarkable debut. (11/8/2015)
“Since he’d been Outside, he’d learned that fear was only a default setting, like how the TV always starts at channel 3 when you first turn it on. That everyone is born afraid of everything, but most people build calluses over top of it”

If I Fall, If I Die is the first novel by prize-winning Canadian author and skateboarder, Michael Christie. Since he was a small boy, eleven-year-old Will Cardiel has lived Inside with his mom. Going Outside would just trigger a Black Lagoon for her, so he doesn’t. Until today. Unable to ignore a loud noise, he investigates, meets another boy his age, and sets in motion major changes in his life.

Diane Cardiel has agoraphobia. Once a successful filmmaker, her anxiety is now so great (“…her heart insisted on racing, like an oil-doused bird flapping for its life in her chest. Other sensations, too, unmistakeable as neon: a dull pain throughout, a soreness in her blood, a twisting in her gut, stardust in her fingertips. It would pass, a mere miscalculation of an errant brain that found danger where there was none, that saw a lion instead of the lamb before her”) that her life is limited to inside their house in Thunder Bay (and sometimes, inside her bedroom).

Her fears for Will are many, but she knows that one day soon, she will have to let him go, let him live a normal life. When he insists on going to school, she somehow manages her anxiety. But when she discovers he has been going to the waterfront, to the grain elevators, her dread is overwhelming: “…what drove her panic today wasn’t that her brother had died at the elevators, just as her father did, or that her mother died a young woman. It was that anyone did. Anywhere. That tragedy made no distinction. That it claimed equally those who invited it and those who didn’t. Those treasured, and those ignored. That there was no protection, no spell. It knew every face. Every address”

The story, told over two years of Will’s life, is narrated by Will, by Diane and by a man named Titus, whose identity is gradually revealed (although astute readers will guess correctly). Christie gives the reader a plausible plot, with several mysteries that take twists and turns before being finally resolved. His characters are complex and believable: none are wholly good, all have flaws and failings. There is plenty of humour in Will’s discovery of the Outside world.

Christie gives the reader some marvellous descriptive prose. He can evoke the feel of an agoraphobic’s terror as easily as the confusion of an adolescent: “…such magnitudes of time had a similar underwhelming effect as when his mother first taught him that every single star was actually another sun just like theirs. They created a humph – then nothing. Some information was too enormous to cram into your mind”

Christie obviously writes from experience: he grew up in Thunder Bay himself, and his love of skateboarding is apparent. This moving coming-of-age novel also touches on the plight of Native Canadians, the dangers of grain elevators, the attraction of pure grain liquor and the debilitating effects of agoraphobia. A remarkable debut.
The Lake House
by Kate Morton
A brilliant read (11/3/2015)
“We are all victims of our human experience, apt to view the present through the lens of our own past”

The Lake House is the fifth novel by Australian author, Kate Morton. DC Sadie Sparrow has had to take leave from the job she loves. She got so deeply involved in a case, following instinct over evidence, that she secretly did something that would get her suspended if her boss knew. A month in Cornwall with her widower grandfather, Bertie, and she’s itching to get back to London, where the real action is. But then one day, while running through the woods with the dogs, she stumbles upon an abandoned house by the lake. Bertie’s neighbour mentions that this was the site of the tragic disappearance of 11 month old Theo Edevane, a mystery still unsolved after seventy years: Sadie is hooked.

When successful mystery writer A.C. Edevane receives a letter from the young police constable enquiring about her family’s past, she fears that the secret she has kept for seventy years is about to be revealed. Alice is sure that when she was sixteen, consumed with fervour for both her writing and a certain unsuitable person, her foolish actions leading up to the Midsummer’s Eve party were instrumental in the kidnapping of her baby brother.

Morton sets her novel over two time periods. The events that led up to, and followed on from, the tragedy in the early to mid-twentieth century are narrated by many of the key players: young Alice, her mother, her father, her grandmother, a gardener, a close family friend and even baby Theo; what occurs in 2003 is told by Sadie, Alice and her assistant, Peter. And while the time periods are clearly indicated at the start of the chapters, the style of prose, the descriptions and dialogue also reflect this.

Morton gives the reader an expertly crafted mystery. At first she has the reader wondering about Alice’s role in Theo’s disappearance, then, with each new revelation, has the reader discarding one theory concerning Theo’s fate and postulating another. There are miscommunications, misunderstandings, secrets and misplaced guilt. And while the main mystery involves baby Theo, there are at least three other mysteries to distract the reader. There are twists and red herrings and surprises, and the ending holds a delicious irony. And all this is done with characters that are interesting and beautiful prose that evokes the wonderful setting.

“Those afternoons in the library, breathing the stale sun-warmed dust of a thousand stories (accented by the collective mildew of a hundred years of rising damp), had been enchanted. …. Peter was beset with an almost bodily sense of being back there. His limbs twitched with the memory of being nine years old and lanky as a foal. His mood lifted as he remembered how large, how filled with possibilities, and yet, at once, how safe and navigable the world had seemed when he was shut within those four walls”. A brilliant read.
Wyatt
by Garry Disher
a brilliant read (10/30/2015)
Incredible as it may seem, I had never read any of Garry Disher’s Wyatt series, so I had no idea of the depth of reading pleasure in store for me when I started his latest offering, “Wyatt”.
Wyatt has been away; now he’s back. The plot begins with a planned jewel heist but takes many a twist and turn before the final page. Wyatt seems to be a crook with principles, but he doesn’t hesitate to kill if that’s what’s needed. And there are plenty of dead bodies strewn throughout this novel. The action is fast-paced and “the goods” change hands with dizzying frequency.
Disher is a master of description; this novel is full of realistic, down-to-earth, gutsy characters; the dialogue is razor-sharp. Wyatt’s theory about words: “The words had a job to do and were not to be squandered” could apply equally to Disher himself. He may be economical with them, but he certainly chooses the right ones and strings them together in a most satisfying order.
There are some delicious ironies: one set of thieves referring to the people who robbed them as “the thieves”; the robbing, at one stage, being done by a cop.
It is easy to see why this novel has won the Ned Kelly Award for Best Crime Fiction 2010. Readers will have difficulty putting it down. There was a 13 year hiatus between the last Wyatt novel and this one: let’s hope we don’t have to wait as long for the next one. This was my first Wyatt novel, but certainly not my last.
The Zig Zag Girl
by Elly Griffiths
an excellent murder mystery (10/26/2015)
The Zig Zag Girl is a stand-alone novel by British author, Elly Griffiths. Brighton, England, 1950: the young woman had been sawn in three; the parts, contained in black wooden boxes fastened with brass clips, were discovered in the Left Luggage room of the railway station. Witness descriptions are vague, but several aspects of the case cause DI Edgar Stephens, lead investigator, to travel to Eastbourne to seek out Max Mephisto, magician.

Their association began in Inverness during the war, when they were part of a Secret Service team, the Magic Men, but a tragic event had seen the end of team, and their involvement . The resemblance to one of Max’s tricks, the Zig Zag Girl, is strong, but he cannot cast any light on the matter, even when he learns, to his shock, the identity of the victim. When Max’s engagements bring him to Brighton, another death staged as a magic trick leads him to team up with Edgar in an effort to find the killer.

In keeping with the magic trick theme, Griffiths cleverly divides her novel into four parts, aptly titled: The Build-Up, Misdirection, Raising the Stakes and The Reveal. She uses two narrators, Edgar and Max, to convey different parts of the story as well as to give different perspectives on events. The immediate post-war era ensures the absence of mobile phones, internet, DNA and even many personal vehicles; thus the detective work relies on heavily on legwork, personal visits and intelligent deduction.

Griffiths gives the reader characters that are real and flawed; some are vain and selfish; others distracted by misdirection and convinced by illusion. Her plot is clever and original and has a few twists that even the most astute reader may fail to anticipate. The atmosphere of post-war Britain is skilfully evoked with description, dialogue and the attitudes common at the time. This is an excellent murder mystery from the author of the Ruth Galloway crime novels, and fans will not be disappointed.
Recipes for Love and Murder: A Tannie Maria Mystery
by Sally Andrew
a stunning debut (10/23/2015)
“Recipe for Murder
1 stocky man who abuses his wife
1 small tender wife
1 medium-sized tough woman in love with the wife
1 double-barrelled shotgun
1 small Karoo town marinated in secrets
3 bottles of Klipdrift brandy
3 little ducks
1 bottle of pomegranate juice
1 handful of chilli peppers
1 mild gardener
1 fire poker
1 red-hot New Yorker
7 Seventh-day Adventists (prepared for The End of the World)
1 hard-boiled investigative journalist
1 soft amateur detective
2 cool policemen
1 lamb
1 handful of red herrings and suspects mixed together
Pinch of greed
Throw all the ingredients into a big pot and simmer slowly, stirring with a wooden spoon for a few years. Add the ducks, chillies and brandy towards the end and turn up the heat”

Recipes for Love and Murder: A Tannie Maria Mystery is the first novel by South African author, Sally Andrew. Tannie Maria’s Recipe for Murder perfectly sums up the plot of this captivating novel. The Recipe Columnist for the Klein Karoo Gazette, Tannie Maria has to think laterally when the powers that be decree that the Gazette must have an Advice Column. The result is Tannie Maria’s Love Advice and Recipe Column. It is sometimes a challenge, but Tannie Maria manages to give the right advice and just the right recipe to most or her correspondents.

She is disturbed, though, by an anonymous letter from a woman whose husband beats her. And it seems her best advice is not good enough, when a woman fitting her description is murdered. Tannie and her colleagues at the Gazette feel obliged to help the Police to get their man (the husband, obviously!). But it turns out that everything is not quite so straight-forward. Another murder, a suspected poisoning, a threatening letter, a mutilated pair of veldskoene and a kidnapping (or two) will come to pass before the truth is revealed.

Amongst a cast of interesting, appealing and often crazy characters, Tannie Maria is a standout favourite. She is a truly delightful character: a cross between Mma Ramotswe and Corinna Chapman, she places great importance on good food. She shares her thoughts with her food, and food, or the preparation of it, feature in most of her descriptions, as “The fan on the ceiling was going round and round. It was like an oven with a thermafan. Jessie, Hattie and I were all being evenly baked as we sat at our desks” and “He had one of those silly moustaches, like a little boy who’s drunk chocolate milk” demonstrate.

This is a murder mystery with plenty of humour, some of it slapstick, some understated, but readers will find themselves smiling, chuckling and laughing out loud. Andrew regularly gives her heroine words of wisdom: “We can be sure that our lives will end with death. There’s not much we can do about that. But you can add love and good food to your life. That is your choice”. She also touches on some topical issues like domestic violence, organic farming and fracking. And includes over 20 pages of mouth-watering recipes. A glossary would be helpful for those who don’t understand Afrikaans or Dutch, but most words are repeated in English. This is a stunning debut, and readers will be hoping this really is the start of a series. Highly recommended!
The Secret Chord: A Novel
by Geraldine Brooks
a joy to read (10/19/2015)
“And there is one chord, one perfect assembly of notes that no other hand can play. The sound of it – pure, rinsing sound, void so that your spirit seems to rush in to fill the space between the notes”

The Secret Chord is the fifth novel by Pulitzer prize-winning Australian author, Geraldine Brooks. David, son of Yishai (Jesse) the Beit Lehemite (Bethlehemite): a shepherd boy, a warrior, an accomplished harpist with a beautiful voice, a composer of psalms, a husband, father, lover, and second King of the United Kingdom of Israel; the significant events in the life of this charismatic figure from the 10th century BCE are related by Natan (Nathan), prophet and part of David’s retinue from the tender age of ten, whose perspective is that of one both present and prescient.

Natan says: “I have set it all down, first and last, the light and the dark. Because of my work, he will live. And not just as a legend lives, a safe tale for the fireside, fit for the ears of the young. Nothing about him ever was safe. Because of me, he will live in death as he did in life: a man who dwelt in the searing glance of the divine, but who sweated and stank, rutted without restraint, butchered the innocent, betrayed those most loyal to him. Who loved hugely, and was kind; who listened to brutal truth and honored the truth teller; who flayed himself for his wrongdoing; who built a nation, made music that pleased heaven, and left poems in our mouths that will be spoken by people yet unborn”. He also tells us “They knew his flaws. Indeed, I think they loved him all the more because he was flawed, as they were, and did not hide his passionate, blemished nature”

The subject matter that Brooks selects for her novels may well be one which a reader would not normally choose, but with this author, the reader is, nonetheless, rewarded with an eminently readable story. Brooks is skilled at making a historical subject come to life by telling the story from the perspective of one closely involved in events, and this book is no exception: all those battles, all that slaying, all the lay withs and begats that cause the eyes to glaze over when read in their original form are made into a riveting read. (For readers who have forgotten their bible stories or never read them, Wikipedia is a great quick reference on David’s life.) The small details of everyday life, the biblical–sounding language and archaic spelling of character names give the text an authentic feel. And as always, the depth of research that Brooks has done on her topic is apparent in every paragraph.

Her descriptive prose is often truly beautiful: “It was as if the harp were a loom, the notes he drew from it a bright thread forming a glorious pattern….his large strong hands could draw forth a breadth of sound that one did not generally associate with the gentle harp. He could make it speak with a thousand voices, soft or stormy” and “His face – his beautiful face – was sunken and scored with lines, the hollows beneath his cheekbones scooped out as if a sculptor had driven his thumbs too deeply into the clay” are two examples.

Passages like “It was the kind of thing that corrodes, like a drop of lye fallen upon linen. You don’t see the effect at first, but in time the fibers weaken and fray, a hole widens, and the garment is spoiled. Only if the drop is washed away directly can the damage be gainsaid” and “… the timbre of David’s voice was a thing apart. It had the tingling urgency of the shofar, and yet was not shrill. It could engender awe, as a high wind howling dangerously through mighty branches, or bring delight, as an unexpected trill of sweet birdsong” make this work of historical fiction a joy to read. Once again, Brooks does not disappoint.
With thanks to TheReadingRoom and Hachette Australia for this copy to read and review
Crucifixion Creek: A Belltree Mystery
by Barry Maitland
An excellent Aussie crime page-turner. (10/18/2015)
Crucifixion Creek is the first book in The Belltree Trilogy and the fourteenth novel by Scots-born Australian author, architect and urban design expert, Barry Maitland. A former member of the Crows bikie gang shoots his girlfriend during a siege at Crucifixion Creek, in Sydney’s south-west; an elderly couple take their own lives at a beachside café; a builder is stabbed to death in an apparent mugging. Bankstown Chronicle journalist, Kelly Pool believes the incidents are connected, and she wants to trade facts with Detective Sergeant Harry Belltree.

But Harry has problems of his own: the stabbing victim was his brother-in-law and nothing about this murder makes any sense. And Harry is determined to get to the truth behind his parents’ death, three years earlier: a car “accident” that left his wife, Jennifer with a post traumatic brain injury causing blindness. While she has done much to adapt, and is an IT genius, Harry cannot let go of the idea that it was deliberate. He wants justice.

Maitland gives the reader a story that feels like it could, or possibly, has happened. A raid on a bikie compound, corrupt politicians, overseas junkets with sinister purposes, dodgy property financiers: it all sounds very familiar and quite topical. Maitland’s characters are complex and multi-faceted: while some are exactly what they first seem to be, this is certainly not the case for all of the players. Harry is appealing: a tenacious maverick who cares for those close to him but is certainly no saint.

There are twists and red herrings, plenty of tension and action delivered at a fast pace; shootings, stabbings, beatings and arson all form part of the mix, and occasionally, the reader will be left gasping at the turn of events. Of course, not all issues are resolved as this is a trilogy, but readers will be very pleased to join Harry and Jenny in book two, Ash Island. An excellent Aussie crime page-turner.
Us: A Novel
by David Nicholls
Another brilliant Nicholls offering! (10/8/2015)
Us is the fourth novel by British author, screenwriter, and actor, David Nicholls. With his seventeen-year-old son, Albie soon to head off to college to study photography, Douglas Petersen is looking forward to growing old with his beloved, beautiful and artistic wife of some twenty years, Connie. Unfortunately, Connie has other plans, intending to “rediscover herself” without Douglas, something that hits him hard (“It was like trying to go about my business with an axe embedded in my skull”). But before that happens, they have a final summer holiday to share: their Grand Tour of Europe, which will take in as much art and culture as they can cram into a month, a holiday meticulously planned by Douglas, a biochemist whose appreciation of art has been taught to him by Connie. Douglas is hoping this wonderful vacation can repair his relationship with his son, remind Connie of all that was so great about their marriage and thus change her mind about leaving him. The narrative alternates between the vacation and the memories of life from when Douglas first met and fell in love with Connie. Love, before Connie (b.c.), had been “a condition whose symptoms were insomnia, dizziness and confusion followed by depression and a broken heart”. After Connie (a.c.), life was altogether better: “I was familiar with the notion of alternative realities, but was not used to occupying the one I liked best.” As the holiday progresses (not quite according to plan), he reviews in his mind past incidents of family life, and in retrospect, develops an uncomfortable insight into his words and deeds, an insight that was, unfortunately, lacking at the time. He begins to realise that his “huge amount of care, an ocean of it” was perceived by others as narrow-mindedness, conservatism or caution; he begins to understand Connie’s accusation that “you can really suck the joy out of pretty much anything these days, can’t you?”

This novel is populated by characters that will feel familiar: most of us know a Douglas, well-meaning but almost completely incapable of spontaneity; Connie, beautiful, enigmatic and charming; Albie, filled with teenaged scorn for adult conservatism; the Petersen parents, repressed and disapproving (“Alcohol loosened inhibitions, and inhibitions were worn tight here”); Kat, rebellious and determined to shock. The plot is original and certainly takes a few unanticipated turns, a bit like the Petersen’s vacation: buskers, angry bikers, Carabinieri, an Amsterdam prostitute, undersized Speedos, a night in a jail cell and jellyfish were not expected to feature. Nicholls gives the reader words of wisdom that elicit nodding agreement, lines that will cause smiles, groans and, in fact lots of laugh-out-loud moments, but he also causes the eyes to well up on several occasions. Nicholls treats the reader to some marvellous turns of phrase: “I had sweated feverishly in the night, the bedding now damp enough to propagate cress” and “together we had the grace of a three-legged dog, hobbling from place to place” are just two examples. Another brilliant Nicholls offering!
The October List
by Jeffery Deaver
Original and very imaginative. (8/21/2015)
The October List is a stand-alone novel by popular American author, Jeffery Deaver. Early on a September Sunday evening, Gabriela McKenzie waits nervously in a “safe” apartment with minder, Sam Easton, for news of the negotiation with her daughter’s kidnapper. She is hoping her new (and apparently wealthy) friend, Daniel Reardon and his expert team can save Sarah. Her kidnapper is demanding a large sum of money, and something called The October List. But when the door opens, a shock awaits: the kidnapper, gun in hand, enters.

In this unusually constructed thriller, Deaver begins with the final chapter and works back through the events of the previous days. The first (ie last) chapters are quite confusing, but if the reader persists, the reward is a cleverly put-together story that is filled with twists, turns and red herrings. As the story progresses (?) in reverse, the reader learns that none of the characters is quite who or what they seem. Some arouse suspicion from the start, but others are a complete surprise. Original and very imaginative. 4.5 stars
Go Set a Watchman
by Harper Lee
It’s not To Kill A Mockingbird, but it’s still a good read! (8/11/2015)
Go Set a Watchman is the second published novel by American author, Harper Lee. It was written before To Kill A Mockingbird, but not published until 55 years after that book. Now twenty-six years old and living in New York, Jean Louise Finch travels to Maycomb for her regular two-week visit with her ageing father. Atticus is seventy-two and often debilitated by rheumatoid arthritis, but he does have young Henry Clifton to work his law practice, and his sister Alexandra lives in the Finch house to help with daily activities. Henry is pressing Jean Louise to marry him, and although Aunt Alexandra considers him unsuitable, Jean Louise finds herself actually thinking seriously about it:
“She was almost in love with him. No, that’s impossible, she thought: either you are or you aren’t. Love’s the only thing in this world that is unequivocal. There are different kinds of love, certainly, but it’s a you-do or you-don’t proposition with them all”

But just a few days into her stay, she discovers, quite by chance, something that rocks her to the core, something that has her actually doubting the foundation of her values. Until then, “She did not stand alone, but what stood behind her, the most potent moral force in her life, was the love of her father. She never questioned it, never thought about it, never even realized that before she made any decision of importance the reflex, ‘What would Atticus do?’ passed through her unconscious; she never realized what made her dig in her feet and stand firm whenever she did was her father; that whatever was decent and of good report in her character was put there by her father; she did not know that she worshipped him”

There has been quite some criticism of this book, and some of that is valid. Jean Louise’s rant in Part VI could certainly do with editing, and while it does not sparkle quite like To Kill A Mockingbird, and perhaps the characters are not quite as well-formed or appealing as that book, nonetheless, Go Set A Watchman has humour and wisdom. It forms a welcome complement to To Kill A Mockingbird, and Jean Louise’s reminiscences of her childhood are quite delightful. At least one passage is lifted wholly from this book and inserted into TKAM, perhaps hardly surprising.

Lee’s character descriptions are every bit as good as in TKAM: “She was a person who, when confronted with an easy way out, always took the hard way” and “She was completely unaware that with one twist of the tongue she could plunge Jean Louise into a moral turmoil by making her niece doubt her own motives and best intentions, by tweaking the protestant, philistine strings of Jean Louise’s conscience until they vibrated like a spectral zither” are examples.

A knowledge of Civil Rights legislation in the mid-fifties comes in handy, but Uncle Jack’s words of wisdom are as succinct and universally applicable as they ever were, as demonstrated by: “Prejudice, a dirty word, and faith, a clean one, have something in common: they both begin where reason ends” and “…the time your friends need you is when they’re wrong, jean Louise. They don’t need you when they’re right”.

It’s not To Kill A Mockingbird, but it’s still a good read!
Nothing Gold Can Stay: Stories
by Ron Rash
Rash’s stories are pure gold. (7/26/2015)
“I’d fish until it was neither day nor night, but balanced between. There never seemed to be a breeze, pond and shore equally smoothed. Just stillness, as though the world had taken a soft breath, and was holding it in, and even time had leveled out, moving neither forward nor back. Then the frogs and crickets waiting for full dark announced themselves, or a breeze came up and I again heard the slosh of water against land”

Nothing Gold Can Stay is an omnibus of fourteen short stories by American author, Ron Rash. Ranging from the time of the Civil War through to the present day, the stories occur in a feast of Appalachian settings: Tennessee mountains, small town, a river between Georgia and South Carolina, a casino, a farm near the Tennessee border, a college campus, a slope in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a derelict old house, a pond and more.

Rash is a consummate storyteller who gives his reader a marvellous cast of characters: a prison trusty on a road gang, a desperate pair of drug addicts, a diver called in to recover a body, a debt-weary couple hoping for good luck, a pair of black fugitives, an Englishman with an interest in ballads, a father worried for his daughter serving in the Middle East, a husband fed up with his Florida in-laws, a mountain boy with a chance at a better life, a sixteen-year-old girl wishing for a more exciting life, a nineteenth century pastor who takes a drastic step to help a young couple, a grocery store manager prompted to recall an encounter in his teens, a night-time radio DJ and a retired veterinarian.

The stories are filled with twists, amusing plays on language and accent, black humour, irony and, of course, beautiful prose. Rash will cause the reader to think about deception, theft, loyalty, feuds, gambling, hopelessness, revenge, physical beauty and ageing. Rash’s love of the Appalachian setting is apparent in every paragraph: “He stood there in the late-afternoon light, absorbing the valley’s expansiveness after days in the mountains. The land rippled out and appeared to reach all the way to where the sun and earth merged”. Rash’s stories are pure gold.
4.5 stars
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay: Neapolitan Novels
by Elena Ferrante
A compelling read (7/22/2015)
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay is the third book in the Neapolitan Novels series by Italian author, Elena Ferrante. This installment takes up the story of Lila Cerullo and Elena Greco when they are in their mid-twenties (1969) and relates the events of their lives until they are in their early thirties (1976). Lila is living in San Giovanni a Teduccio with her young son, Gennaro, under the care of Enzo Scanno, and working at the sausage factory of Bruno Soccavo. Elena has just published her first novel, is about to marry Pietro Airota and move to Florence. Against the background of the political upheaval and violence in Italy during the seventies, Elena details significant incidents in her own life: the mixed reception to her novel, her marriage, children, her further attempts at writing, her encounters with her dear friend, Lila and with the man she has always loved, Nino Sarratore. Elena begins her narration by stating when she last saw Lila (2005) and that the purpose of her narration is to draw Lila (who has been missing since 2010) out to correct her story. The reason for this eventually becomes apparent. Elena relates what she knows of Lila’s life from what she has been told by Lila herself, and what she has heard from others. Ferrante skilfully evokes the feel of Italy and the “neighbourhood” in Naples at this turbulent time, and it is a story with virtually no joy, but plenty of honesty and grit. It is, at times, confronting and never pleasant. Ferrante’s characters are complex and well-formed and, while the reader may be able to identify with some, they are, without exception, unappealing. Elena’s final actions, uncharacteristic as they are, make for a cliff-hanger ending. The first-person narration by Elena gives this series a decidedly autobiographic feel, which is echoed in the subject of her narrator’s own novel. Not only readers new to this series will appreciate the seven-page Index of Characters and Notes on the Events of Earlier Volumes (even if only to distinguish Dino from Gino, Rino, and Nino). Readers will find themselves constantly flicking back to these seven pages to establish the relationships, political affiliations and loyalties of the many characters. This powerful novel is flawlessly translated by Ann Goldstein. Readers who enjoyed the first two books of the series will not be disappointed, and will look forward to the final book of the series. A compelling read.
My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry
by Fredrik Backman
Funny, sad and truly heartwarming (6/30/2015)
“…storytelling is the noblest profession of all. The currency there is imagination; instead of buying something with coins you buy it with a good story. Libraries aren’t known as libraries but as ‘banks’ and every fairy tale is worth a fortune”

My Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologises is the second novel by Swedish blogger, columnist and author, Fredrik Backman. As with his previous bestseller, this book is flawlessly translated by Henning Koch. Every seven-year-old girl needs a superhero of their own, and Elsa (almost eight) has one: her grandmother. Unfortunately, Granny has cancer and dies just a few days before Christmas and Elsa’s eighth birthday, leaving her rudderless. But before she left, Granny charged Elsa with a mission: a treasure hunt of sorts, involving letters of apology to be delivered to some of the many people Granny has offended over the years. Elsa may feel overwhelmed by her task, but Granny made her a knight in the Land-of-Almost-Awake, so she tries to be brave and fearless. And after a while, Elsa realises that Granny has equipped her with what she needs to face the future without her.

Backman has peopled his novel with a wonderful cast of characters, often quirky yet familiar and appealing for all their faults and imperfections. The banter between the characters is enjoyable and often laugh-out-loud funny. Backman’s plot is so cleverly devised that the reader can see events from the perspective of a seven (nearly eight) year old who believes in the fantasy world her granny has created for her, and from the point of view of the adults around her. And that fantasy world, the Land-of-Almost-Awake, is a wonderful thing in itself, with its parallels in the lives, loves and losses of the real-world characters.

Backman given his characters many words of wisdom and insightful observations: “People who have never been hunted always seem to think there’s a reason for it. ‘They wouldn’t do it without a cause, would they? You must have done something to provoke them.’ As if that was how oppression works” and “…sometimes the safest place is when you flee to what seems the most dangerous” and “When it comes to terror, reality’s got nothing on the power of imagination” are examples. He also gives Elsa some excellent retorts to adult statements: for ‘It’s complicated.’ Elsa has ‘Yes, until someone explains it to you!’ and for ‘It’s hard to help those who don’t want to help themselves’ she cleverly objects ‘Someone who wants to help himself is possibly not the one who’s most in need of other people’s help’.

Backman’s second novel is another winner, and readers will be eager to know what he can come up with next. Funny, sad and truly heartwarming.
Second Life
by S. J. Watson
Another thought-provoking page-turner. (6/13/2015)
“I realize with sudden clarity that we’re wearing masks, all of us, all the time. We’re presenting a face, a version of ourselves, to the world, to each other. We show a different face depending on who we’re with and what they expect of us. Even when we’re alone, it’s just another mask, the version of ourselves we’d prefer to be.”

Second Life is the second novel by the acclaimed author of Before I Go To Sleep, S.J.Watson. When her sister, Kate is murdered in a Paris alleyway, happily married London photographer, Julia Plummer is devastated. She feels acutely that she has let her sister down, and is determined to uncover the facts. The box of Kate’s effects she has been given by Kate’s flatmate, Anna, lead her to question what she knew about her sister: she soon finds herself risking everything she holds dear in an online relationship with someone who could be the murderer. “There’s a point where an online dalliance might become dangerous, but who can really say when it is?”

After a decidedly slow start, Watson once again gives the reader a gripping tale with a plot full of tension that twists and turns multiple times before reaching a shattering climax. His cast of characters is believable, although many have secrets and some are definitely not what they first seem. Quite unlike Watson’s protagonist in Before I Go To Sleep, this narrator will exasperate readers with her naïveté, her more-than-occasional stupidity and her self-absorbed state of mind; her selfishness, too, will leave the reader gasping.

This is a psychological thriller that graphically illustrates the dangers to be found online, where no one is necessarily what they appear or claim to be. It demonstrates how, once you dispatch it by email or social media, you lose control over any image or piece of information. Today’s technology means almost anything can be faked and makes the potential for extortion of the unwary virtually limitless. Another thought-provoking page-turner.
4.5 stars
River of Smoke: Ibis Trilogy, Part 2
by Amitav Ghosh
Another excellent read (5/30/2015)
“Opium is like the wind or the tides: it is outside my power to affect its course. A man is neither good nor evil because he sails his ship upon the wind. It is his conduct towards those around him – his friends, his family, his servants – by which he must be judged. This is the creed I live by”

River of Smoke is the second book in the Ibis Trilogy by Amitav Ghosh. The story starts with an elderly Deeti Colver in Mauritius, visiting her shrine with its pictorial record of the family history. But another visitor is asked to make his not-insignificant contribution: soon the reminiscences of Neel Rattan Halder, also familiar to readers from Sea of Poppies, take over the tale. The reader learns the fate of some of the passengers of the Ibis after the storm in the Bay of Bengal, in particular, Paulette Lambert , Ah Fatt and Neel, with occasional mentions of Zachary Reid’s fate. But the majority of this book centres on Ah Fatt’s Parsi father, Seth Bahram Modi, whose opium-laden ship, the Anahita, weathers the same storm in the Bay of Bengal, en route to Canton, and on events there as the Chinese Emperor takes steps to eradicate the scourge of the opium trade on his people.

Once again, Ghosh gives the reader a tremendous amount of information: of course, opium trade features largely, but Chinese customs, trade and diplomacy, bird’s nest soup, the transport of live plants across the globe, Asian art, painted gardens and Napoleon all get a mention. And providing all this, as he does, in the context of an engaging story set against the backdrop of events leading to the First Opium War, he makes it easy to assimilate. His characters are all well-rounded: their backstories often forming interesting little tales by themselves. His (and his ancestor’s) fascination with the migration of words is apparent in the many different language forms that appear: local patois, pidgin and slang. The number of aliases that some of the characters have is another intriguing facet of this book.

As well as straight narrative, Ghosh gives the reader facts by employing the device of a newcomer’s first impressions and explanations. The letters from Robin Chinnery to Paulette, in particular, serve this purpose, as well as being a marvellous source of humour. This book, like the first, is filled with beautiful descriptive prose and insightful observations: “Nowhere on earth, I suspect, is the importance of portals as well understood as in China. In this country, gateways are not merely entrances and exits - they are tunnels between different dimensions of existence”. Another excellent read that will have fans looking forward to the third book, Flood of Fire.

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