Reviews by Cloggie Downunder

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The Paperbark Shoe: A Novel
by Goldie Goldbloom
outstanding debut (5/24/2015)
“The tin roof of the Italian’s hut flashed like a semaphore at the clouds scudding over the moon, smoky white clouds, fraying at the edges, with deep purple bellies”

The Paperbark Shoe is the first novel by West Australian-born novelist and short story writer, Goldie Goldbloom. It won the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Award for Fiction in 2008, and the Literary Novel of the Year from the ForeWord Magazine (Independent Publishers) in 2011. In 1943, Italian Prisoners of War were sent out to work on West Australian farms, a welcome source of labour at a time when able-bodied men were away at war. Antonio and Gianpaolo arrive at Mr Toad’s farm on the Cemetery Road, five miles west of Wyalkatchem, dressed in their maroon-dyed uniforms.

This remote holding (“On one side of us stands the uninhabited coast, thousands of rocky miles patrolled by sharks, and on the other stands the vast, appalling desert of the great red centre, studded with the bones of animals and men that have strayed there and melted into the earth”) is home to Gin Toad, albino, prize-winning pianist, mother of three and two months pregnant; and Toadie, known for his collection of women’s corsets. Both misfits in society, together for reasons that never included love.

When Antonio flatters Gin with attention and compliments, her attention is drawn to Toadie’s shortcomings: “I can hear him now, his voice so like the croaking of a frog in a bucket, his deep sniffs punctuating each sentence”. The nature of their marriage irritates her more than ever: “He never touched me in the daytime, in the light, that man who ran his hands so tenderly over the horses, who touched his nose to their velvet muzzles and murmured to them as he gazed into their eyes. He had it in him, a capacity for love. But he hid it from me”

Goldbloom’s plot goes where expected, but with a twist. Her characters are a breed apart: many are quirky, all are in some way flawed, and while this can be endearing, the only truly appealing character in this tale is young Alfie. All the rest are selfish, some to an appalling degree. Her descriptive prose is beautiful and she certainly captures the feel of the West Australian desert and the small town attitudes of the 1940s. An outstanding debut.
Academy Street
by Mary Costello
A remarkable debut novel. (5/12/2015)
“Another vocation, then, reading, akin, even, to falling in love, she thought, stirring, as it did, the kind of emotions and extreme feelings she desired, feelings of innocence and longing that returned her to those vaguely perfect states she had experienced as a child.”
Academy Street is the first novel by Irish author, Mary Costello. It chronicles the life of Teresa Lohan, from her youth in rural Ireland in the 1940s through her time in New York and her return to Ireland in her sixties. Tess is seemingly unremarkable, both as a child and an adult: a shy, sensitive child; a woman with an essential loneliness (“It seemed at times that she was marooned on an island, a moat of water, wide and black, separating her from all human love.”); a mother who feels she could have done better. Nonetheless, Costello’s exquisite prose conveys this life with such emotion, such care, that the reader cannot help but be moved. Costello paints her character so vividly, so completely, that the reader can identify with Tess, her feelings (“…the mark of all anxiety: the acute awareness of the endless possibilities that can simultaneously imperil and enhance us, and all that might be lost or gained.”), her ideas (“It Ireland seemed to her now to be a place without dreams, or where dreaming was prohibited. Here, life could be lived at a higher, truer pitch. Though her own was a timid life, there was, since Theo’s birth, a yearning towards motion and spirit and vitality.”), her reactions (“She thought of the water that had lain quietly calm, each tiny drop, each molecule, restful, suddenly wrenched, catapulted through a metal rotary, tossed back out into the turbulent current, reeling, confounded, changed.”). In both style and content, this novel is reminiscent of Sebastian Barry’s work, in particular, “On Canaan’s Side”. A remarkable debut novel.
Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen
by Mary Norris
informative, witty and very funny (4/22/2015)
“What is a semicolon, anyway?” Is it half a colon? Is it a period on top of a comma? Or an apostrophe that has been knocked down and pinned by a period?”

Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen is the first book by Mary Norris, who has been on the staff of The New Yorker for some 35 years, and a Page OK’er for twenty of those. She has been referred to by some as a prose goddess, or a comma queen, and indeed, a whole chapter of this book is devoted to comma usage, and cleverly titled “Comma, comma, comma, comma, chameleon”.

This is a book that seems to be a mix of memoir, opinion piece, language textbook and history book. Norris describes the New Yorker’s Style rules (“It did sometimes feel as if we belonged to some strange cloistered order, the Sisters of the Holy Humility of Hyphens”) and some of its more eccentric personalities. This is a book packed with facts, but Norris conveys them in a manner that makes them easy to assimilate, and often treats the reader to laugh-out-loud examples such as those on the serial comma debate. And who knew there were such things as Dictionary Wars, an Apostrophe Eradication Policy (USA), an Apostrophe Protection Society (England) and a Pencil Sharpener Museum?

As well as demonstrating just why spelling, grammar and punctuation DO matter, Norris explains just what a copy-editor does, and the risks of being one (“When I finally made it to the copydesk, it was a long time before I could once again read for pleasure. I spontaneously copy-edited everything I laid eyes on”), and provides a wealth of handy hints about pronouns, hyphens, expletives (deleted and not), restrictive clauses, dashes, colons and semicolons and copulative verbs. She backs up her advice with plenty of examples, extensive references and a comprehensive index. And, of course, her punctuation is absolutely flawless!

Norris offers plenty of succinct opinions: On autocorrect: “I type “adverbial” and it comes out “adrenal,” which is like a knife thrust to my adverbial gland”. On compound words: “I was learning that the dictionary is a wonderful thing, but you can’t let it push you around, especially where compound words are concerned. Also that a hyphen is not a moral issue”. And on gender: “The idea that gender in language is decorative, a way of dressing up words, can be applied to the human body: things that identify us as male or female—breasts, hips, bulges—are decorative as well as essential to the survival of the species. Lipstick and high heels are inflections, tokens of the feminine: lures, sex apps. Those extra letters dangling at the ends of words are the genitalia of grammar”


She tells us: “I would get lost in throngs of adjectives”. And when her friend remarks “There is no pleasure so acute as that of a well-placed semicolon”, Mary concludes that there must therefore be “no displeasure so obtuse as that of an ill-placed semicolon”. The Text Publishing edition has a cover designed by W.H.Chong with a very clever constructed crown for the Comma Queen. This book is informative, witty and very funny: a must for anyone who cares about what they write. 4.5 stars
Landline
by Rainbow Rowell
a real pleasure to read (4/22/2015)
Landline is the fourth novel by American author, Rainbow Rowell. L.A. TV comedy writer Georgie McCool has been married to Neal Grafton for fifteen years and has two sweet and adorable daughters, Alice and Noomi. But Georgie knows her marriage is broken. They still love each other, but Neal’s not happy, so how can she be? She’s not sure exactly when it broke, but when Neal takes Alice and Noomi home to his parents in Omaha for Christmas, while Georgie stays behind to work, she wonders if it’s the final straw. Especially when Neal doesn’t answer his cell phone.

With her writing going none too well, lonely, concerned about her marriage and with her own cell phone failing, Georgie ends up at her Mom’s place, in her old bedroom, using the big yellow rotary dial phone to ring the landline in Omaha. And then something strange happens. Something that might just give Georgie a change to fix what’s broken…..

As Georgie worries about her relationship, Rowell has her thinking back to how it all started, thus slowly revealing what was so right about Georgie and Neal, and what went wrong later. Rowell’s characters are appealing despite their flaws: the reader may want to shake a bit of sense into Georgie, but luckily she finds it on her own before it is too late. Neal sounds like a husband many women would covet, and Georgie’s family are amusingly eccentric. This novel is moving and uplifting, a real pleasure to read. 4.5 stars
Unnatural Habits: A Phryne Fisher Mystery (Phryne Fisher Mysteries)
by Kerry Greenwood
excellent novel (4/22/2015)
Unnatural Habits is the nineteenth book in the popular Phryne Fisher series by Australian author, Kerry Greenwood. A chance encounter with a young female reporter for The Daily Truth in a laneway leads Phryne Fisher to investigate the disappearance of three pregnant girls and said reporter. Margaret Kettle, better known as Polly, is determined to make her name as a serious journalist and steals a colleague’s story on White Slavery. But her enquiries into the fate of three very pregnant teenagers last seen at a pious widow’s nursing home mark the last sighting of the enthusiastic if somewhat careless reporter.

Her questions in a variety of places have ruffled some feathers, but whose? Someone associated with the Convent of the Good Shepherd and their workhouse-like Magdalen Laundry business? The owners of local brothels or exclusive Gentlemen’s Clubs? Or does her disgruntled colleague have a hand in her disappearance? What does the employment agency, Jobs For All, have to do with it? And just who is going around performing involuntary vasectomies on deserving males?

In this instalment, Phryne makes full use of her daughters (on vacation from school), of Dot, of her new employee, Tink and of her taxi drivers, Bert and Cec. Her minions (as she repeatedly refers to them in this instalment) are put to work on a secret code and other researches as well as taking active parts in the interrogation of witnesses. Phryne adopts an assortment of disguises: a blonde actress, a pregnant girl and a nun, as required by the different strands of the investigation. As well as white slavery, eugenics, virginity tests, kidnapping, slave labour and a female-run fruit-growing collective all feature. With this excellent novel, Greenwood once again proves herself a mistress of historical crime fiction.
A Man Called Ove
by Fredrik Backman
a stunning debut: moving, uplifting and very funny. (4/4/2015)
A Man Called Ove is the first novel by Swedish blogger and columnist, Fredrik Backman. At fifty-nine, Ove has definite ideas on how things should be done, on the best car to drive (obviously a Saab), and no patience for those who cannot follow the rules. The son of a hard-working, poor but principled man, Ove, too is hard-working and sticks rigidly to his principles. But now, six months since the death of his beloved wife, Sonja, he is “not dead, but not really living”, and he is no longer hard-working: he has been retrenched. His life without any purpose whatsoever, he matter-of-factly sets out to commit suicide.

His meticulous plans are derailed, time and again: inferior-quality rope; the Cat Annoyance; the Pregnant Foreign Woman who needs a ladder, a lift, a lesson; radiators that need to be properly bled; a bicycle that needs repair; a fainting Suit needing rescue from certain death; a gay man in need of accommodation. Time and again, he finds himself at Sonja’s grave, apologising once more for failing to join her as promised.

The narrative alternates between a three-week period in the present day, and Ove’s life from the age of seven, when his mother died. With his cranky main character, Backman gives the reader social commentary with plenty of chuckles, snickers and laugh-out-loud moments: “In the parking area, Ove sees that imbecile Anders reversing his Audi out of his garage. It has those new, wave-shaped headlights, Ove notes, presumably designed so that no one at night will be able to avoid the insight that here comes a car driven by an utter shit” and “’I almost smashed into that car!’ pants Parvaneh. Ove peers over the edge of the bonnet. And then, suddenly, a sort of calm comes over his face. He turns and nods at her, very matter-of-fact. ‘Doesn’t matter. It’s a Volvo’” exemplify his opinion about non-Saab vehicles. His insults are similarly hilarious: “You shouldn’t even be allowed to rewind a cassette”, he tells The Lanky One.

But Backman gives his characters plenty of words of wisdom too: “Men are what they are because of what they do. Not what they say” and “We can busy ourselves with living or with dying, Ove. We have to move on” are two examples. There is much humour in this novel, some of it quite black, but there are also moments that will produce a lump in the throat and even tears. Flawlessly translated from Swedish by Henning Koch, this “requested-by-readers” novel is a stunning debut: moving, uplifting and very funny.
Legend Of A Suicide
by David Vann
An amazing debut. (3/24/2015)
“Watching the dark shadow moving before him, it seemed as this were what he had felt for a long time, that his father was something insubstantial before him and that if he were to look away for an instant or forget or not follow fast enough and will him to be there, he might vanish, as if it were only Roy’s will that kept him there”

Legend of a Suicide is the first book by prize-winning American author, David Vann. It consists of five short stories and a novella. The stories are all connected and describe the relationship of young Roy Fenn with his father Jim, a failed dentist and unsuccessful fisherman who commits suicide when Roy is thirteen. Vann writes from a position of authority, having experienced exactly that with his own father.

While this dark subject forms the centre of the tales, Vann often surrounds it with equally dark humour as he describes the (frequently absurd) incidents of their lives. All this is contained within Vann’s luminous prose: “There had been rain overnight. I remember how strong the dove grass smelled, bitter in my nostrils and throat. I looked up suddenly from the bright ground and everything pulled together, all the strands of cloud and blue air, as if there were a huge drain in the center of the sky that sucked it all up”

The short stories are narrated in the first person by Roy; the novella (Sukkwan Island) is narrated in the third person from the point of view of Roy and Jim, and describe a fateful homestead stay on a remote Alaskan island. Again, some evocative descriptive prose is used: “They watched the sun getting lower. It was so slow they couldn’t see it dropping, but they could see the light changing on the water and on the trees, the shadow behind every leaf and ripple in the sideways light making the world three-dimensional, as if they were seeing trees through a view-finder” is an example.

Vann’s portrayal of the mentally ill father, his rationalisations and choices, is very realistic. Young Roy’s thought processes have a similarly authentic feel. This is a moving, sometimes funny, sometimes shocking tale with a clever twist. An amazing debut.
The Three Incestuous Sisters: An Illustrated Novel
by Audrey Niffenegger
Different. (3/17/2015)
The Three Incestuous Sisters is the second “visual novel” by American author and artist, Audrey Niffenegger. The original books were hand printed: a limited edition of ten copies. The drawings are aquatints, featuring three sisters, Clothilde, Ophile and Bettine, who live by the sea. They all look quite similar but conveniently have different coloured hair. Two of them fall in love with the same man and jealousy leads to nasty consequences. The story is a little bizarre, but Niffenegger explains it needs to be imagined as a silent film made from Japanese prints, a melodrama of sibling rivalry. The text is certainly minimal, often as little as one or two words on the page opposite the prints.

In her afterword, Niffenegger explains the complicated process involved in the hand printing. The prints, in subdued colours (except for the sisters’ hair), are quite individual, and Niffenegger’s style is distinctive. It is easy to see from her later works (The Night Book Mobile and Raven Girl) that both the quality of the art and the storytelling have improved since the earlier books. Dedicated Niffenegger fans may wish to own a copy; borrowing from the library is recommended for those who are merely “interested”. Different.
The Well
by Catherine Chanter
This thought-provoking novel is a brilliant debut. (3/10/2015)
“Elsewhere, people were squeezing the last six months into small spaces: bicycles onto the backs of campervans, mattresses onto the roofs of cars, sleeping bags into recycled supermarket carriers, saucepans stacked one into another like Russian dolls, inflatable water carriers deflated. Set to music it would have been a grand chorus scene in an opera, with all the crowd and the minor parts working in unison and it seemed as though any minute they would all turn to face front and burst into song for their curtain call.”

The Well is the first novel by British short story writer and poet, Catherine Chanter. Ruth Ardingly is returned, under house arrest, to The Well, the lush rural property she and her husband, Mark have owned for over a year. The property is securely fenced, Ruth wears an ankle bracelet monitor and is guarded by three soldiers enforcing the Drought Emergency Regulations Act. How has their escape from the City (and the cloud of suspicion that hung over Mark) in the guise of a tree change, gone so horribly wrong?

As Ruth endures the boredom of her sentence, she thinks back on how it all started: the purchase, the rain that favours their idyll, the satisfaction of working towards self-sufficiency and the delight in presence of their grandson, Lucien. Ruth shares some of the memories with a young guard and with the priest who visits her. She tells of the jealousy and suspicion of neighbours, and the arrival of the Sisters of the Rose of Jericho with their charismatic leader, Sister Amelia.

Against the background of a severely water-restricted England, Chanter examines how relationships can break down under the effect of suspicion and increasingly differing priorities, the influence of religious cults and the tragic consequences that can ensue. She gives the reader a glimpse of online religion and the mass hysteria it can generate. This is a gripping drama that will have the reader wondering about the true fate of the young victim, and Ruth’s part in it, until the final pages.

Chanter’s characters are both credible and complex. Her descriptive prose is wonderfully evocative: “.. the thought of her is dries my mouth with hope and fear and thoughts, wild and screeching as crows at dusk, scattering into the darkness” and “Some, I guess, came simply to dip their toe in the rippling pond of drama in the otherwise flat surface of their lives” are just two examples. This thought-provoking novel is a brilliant debut.
Calling Me Home
by Julie Kibler
An impressive debut. (3/9/2015)
Calling Me Home is the first novel by American author, Julie Kibler. When eighty-nine-year-old Miss Isabelle asks her black hairdresser, Dorrie to drive her from Texas to Ohio, Dorrie realises it must be for a very good reason. Single mother of a teenaged boy and girl, Dorrie welcomes the break from her busy life and the new man on the scene who seems too good to be true. As they head toward Cincinnati, and what Dorrie gathers to be a funeral, Miss Isabelle shares memories of her life as a young woman in a very white Kentucky community. A life with a forceful mother for whom appearance was everything, a liberal-minded father too cautious to take a public stand, a pair of arrogant, racist brothers and black servants who were more family to Isabelle than her own kin. She also reveals her first love, her one true love.

The narrative is alternates between two time periods: the events of 1940s are told by Miss Isabelle; the present day happenings are related by Dorrie, touching on the road trip and the dramas of her own family life as well as forming a break from Miss Isabelle’s story and reflecting on that. Kibler’s novel deals with racial discrimination, segregation and intermarriage, as well as sexual discrimination. Her characters are multi-faceted and appealing and her representation of 1940’s Ohio feels authentic. Often funny, and at times, heartbreaking, this is a heart-warming story with a surprise twist near the end. An impressive debut.
Elizabeth Is Missing
by Emma Healey
a brilliant debut novel (2/28/2015)
“…I remember the town being almost too bright to look at when I was a girl. I remember the deep blue of the sky and the dark green of the pines cutting through it, the bright red of the local brick houses and the orange carpet of pine needles under our feet. Nowadays – though I’m sure the sky is still occasionally blue and most houses are still there, and the trees still drop their needles – nowadays, the colours seem faded, as if I live in an old photograph.”

Elizabeth Is Missing is the first novel by British author, Emma Healey. Eighty-two-year-old Maud Horsham is demented. She lives in her own home, has a carer coming daily to help out, and gets regular visits from her daughter Helen. And she is fairly certain that her best friend, Elizabeth is missing. Elizabeth is not at home (Maud has checked) and she feels that Elizabeth’s unfriendly son, Peter Markham is sure to be behind it. Maud finds it frustrating how unconcerned both Helen and the Police are about her disappearance.

While she still has lucid moments, Maud’s mental state ensures that generally her narrative of the present-day is unreliable. But the people and things that fill her day remind her of a time, almost seventy years ago, when she was fourteen and her older, married sister, Susan went missing. After dinner with her family, Sukey disappeared almost without a trace. Did she just run off, as many people just after the war did? Or did her jealous husband, Frank, or the family’s lodger, Doug, have something to do with it? Or was she a victim of the Grosvenor Hotel murderer? Maud’s memories of this time are crystal clear.

While this is a mystery that builds quite gradually, and it is perhaps not the mystery that the reader first expects (Elizabeth’s location is no real surprise), patience is rewarded as the pieces fall into place. Healey expertly segues present triggers into memories of the past, and despite her youth, shows an amazing insight into the world of the elderly and the demented. As anyone with a demented relative or friend will agree, there are times when the best reaction is to laugh, the alternative being to cry, and Healey portrays these moments with consummate ease. This is not a book for everyone: some readers may find it strikes a little too close to home. Perceptive, blackly funny and often frighteningly realistic, this is a brilliant debut novel.
Aquarium
by David Vann
Another excellent offering from David Vann. (2/25/2015)
“Like a leaf giving birth to stars………..Body of small green leaves, veined, very thin, its fins painted in light cast from elsewhere, but from his eye out his long snout, an eruption of galaxies without foreign source, born in the fish itself. An opening in the small fabric of the world, a place to fall into endlessly.”

Aquarium is the fifth full length novel by American author, David Vann. It is set in 1994 and narrated by twelve-year-old Caitlin Thompson. Caitlin’s world revolves around three important elements: her hardworking single mother, Sheri; her best friend at school, Indian émigré Shalini Anand; and her afternoon visits to the Seattle Aquarium. The year is drawing to a close, class involves making a paper-mache Divali Reindeer and Sheri has finally met a decent man, Steve, when Caitlin encounters an old man at the Aquarium, an old man who seems as fascinated by the fish as she is. And who seems very interested in her life.

Vann gives the reader a very diverse cast of characters: the effervescent Shalini; the admirably balanced Steve; the damaged and resentful Sheri; the earnestly repentant Bob. Of course, Caitlin, with her optimism, her love and her capacity for compassion, outshines them all. Their interactions are sometimes funny, sometimes decidedly uncomfortable, sometimes shockingly raw, but fans of Vann’s work will know not to expect a novel filled with sweetness and light. His work has been described as confronting. The plot takes a few unexpected turns before arriving at a startling climax.

While readers may find the lack of quotation marks for speech irritating, this is more than compensated for by the gorgeous descriptive passages, especially, but not only, those about fish. “You’re in trouble, Shalini whispered in my ear, leaning close. All the little hairs stood up on my neck and I had goose bumps. Shalini could make me shiver, as if my entire body were a bell that had just been struck” Another excellent offering from David Vann.
4.5 stars
The Buried Giant
by Kazuo Ishiguro
Quite unexpected. (2/3/2015)
“…for if we’re mortal let us at least shine handsomely in God’s eyes while we walk this earth!”

The Buried Giant is the seventh novel by award-winning Japanese author, Kazuo Ishiguro. Set in post-Arthurian Britain, it follows the journey of a Briton couple, Axl and Beatrice, as they travel some distance to a village where their son, whom they have not seen for quite some years, now waits for them. Along the way, they are drawn into dramas and conflicts involving the people they encounter. The couple are convinced the land is plagued by a mist of forgetfulness, and determined to learn the cause, trusting their love will withstand any memories that are revealed.

Having already met a ferryman and a resentful widow, they are eventually accompanied by a Saxon warrior, a boy with a strange wound and an Arthurian knight with his faithful steed. At a monastery they seek and find wisdom and healing, but are also met with betrayal, monsters, and soldiers. And while one monk asserts “…we must uncover what’s hidden and face the past”, they have difficulty discerning truths from the half-truths and lies they are told. And if they achieve their goal and clear the mist? “Who knows what will come when quick-tongued men make ancient grievances rhyme with fresh desire for land and conquest?”

Ishiguro fills his tale with creatures, characters, objects and happenings from myth and legend: a she-dragon, pixies, a ferry crossing, ogres, instruments of torture, secret tunnels and sword battles. He touches on hate and tolerance, enmity and allegiance, honour and duty, love, loyalty and revenge, war and peace. An Arthurian form of censorship also features. Ishiguro treats the reader to some beautiful prose, but readers of his earlier work will remark on how different this one is. Quite unexpected.

With thanks to The Reading Room and Allen and Unwin for this copy to read and review.
The Seventh Day: A Novel
by Yu Hua
thought-provoking (1/27/2015)
The Seventh Day is the fifth novel by acclaimed Chinese novelist and essayist, Yu Hua. At forty-one, Yang Fei dies in an Eatery explosion, but, having no burial plot, and no-one to buy one for him, he eventually finds himself wandering in a sort of Limbo, the Land of the Unburied. He wears a black armband: he mourns his own death as there is no-one else to do so. As he drifts around the afterlife, he encounters people who look familiar but do not sound like those he knew in life, people now also dead.

He also meets certain people he has heard about, and all have interesting tales to tell. Travelling the path of memory, Fei recalls the story of his birth, his rescue from certain death by Yang Jinbiao, a loving childhood with Jinbiao and close neighbours, meeting his birth mother, his short-lived marriage to the beautiful Qi Ling, Jinbiao’s illness, departure and Fei’s search for him, and Fei’s own death.

With Fei’s memories and the stories of those he encounters, Yu employs an interesting device for commenting on contemporary China: nominally Communist, yet corruption is rife, classes of society do exist and social injustice abounds. He shows the homeless living in bomb shelters, yet craving iPhone 4s, blogging on QQ, selling kidneys for cash and committing suicide for apparently trivial reasons. While the forced demolitions, threats, payment of hush money, cover-ups, propaganda (like downward estimates of victims and deaths), abuse of privilege, bribery and foetuses regarded as medical waste paint a depressing picture, there are lighter moments.

The absurdities of the cross-dressing prostitute and his arresting policeman, the singing babies, the Eatery in the Land of the Unburied and the courtship of the hairwashers provide a bit of fun, and Fei’s relationship with his adopted father and neighbours is truly uplifting and often transcends the hopelessness in face of tragedy and misfortune. This thought-provoking novel is flawlessly translated from Chinese by Allan H. Barr. Fans of Yu Hua’s earlier work will not be disappointed.
Funny Girl
by Nick Hornby
another brilliant dose of Hornby at his best (1/4/2015)
“What was he doing with her? How on earth could he love her? But he did. Or, at least, she made him feel sick, sad and distracted. Perhaps there was another way of describing that unique and useless combination of feelings, but ‘love’ would have to do for now”

Funny Girl is the sixth full-length novel by British author, Nick Hornby. Set, for the most part, in the mid-to-late 1960s, Hornby’s latest novel gives the reader an intimate look at the making of a TV comedy series. His TV show, cast and crew are fictional, but Hornby firmly establishes the era with historical fact, using mentions of real-life politicians, personalities and events, as well as photographs, an advertisements and a cartoon strip. By adding extracts of scripts, a book cover, reviews, and program notes, he gives the whole thing an authenticity that will delight readers familiar with those years.

Barbara Parker’s heroine is Lucille Ball, and her ambition is to be in comedy TV. She may be beautiful enough to win Miss Blackpool, but she gives it up in an instant to head to London, to become Sophie Straw, and, eventually, to audition for a BBC Comedy Playhouse show. Before too long, she is starring, as (ironically) Barbara from Blackpool, in a hugely popular sitcom series about a married couple, written by her comic heroes, Bill Gardiner and Tony Holmes, and titled “Barbara (and Jim)”.

Characters and dialogue are Hornby’s strengths, and he does not disappoint with Funny Girl. It is impossible not to like and care about this diverse bunch, despite (or perhaps because of) their many and varied flaws: vanity, confusion about sexuality, selfishness, superficiality, timidity. There is plenty of humour, much of it dry, the sort that elicits wry chuckles rather than laugh-out-loud guffaws (“Davie remained undeterred. In his mind’s eye, he said, he always saw Clive as a cowboy. Clive had always thought that Davie needed his mind’s eye tested”).

Topical themes of the sixties feature: feminism, homosexuality and the sexually permissive society (“He was talking about the times they all suddenly lived in, and how hard it was not to be a small boy in a sweet shop with no cash register”). This is a novel in which life imitates art, but also, often, the reverse, as the writers of the show rely on what they know. This funny and moving novel is another brilliant dose of Hornby at his best.
The Kill Room: A Lincoln Rhyme Thriller
by Jeffery Deaver
Deaver page-turner (1/4/2015)
The Kill Room is the tenth full-length novel in the Lincoln Rhyme series by American author, Jeffery Deaver. Lincoln Rhyme, Amelia Sachs and the team are asked to assist in the case of an assassination, but the case has political implications. Assistant DA, Nance Laurel is determined to get a conviction against Shreve Metzger, the head of the Washington-sanctioned National Intelligence and Operations Service, for authorising the shooting of an out-spoken anti-American activist in his hotel room in the Bahamas on insufficient evidence of potential threat.

With no crime scene to examine, and virtually no cooperation from the Bahamian Police, Rhyme and Sachs find it difficult to make progress. And keeping their investigation under wraps is difficult as the NIOS seems to have inside information: possible witnesses and sources are being eliminated even as the team are on their way to investigate, and soon, it seems, members of the team themselves are also in danger.

This instalment touches on several topical themes: the ethics of pe-emptive strike; anger management; the selective dissemination of information; and the use of unmanned aerial vehicles. Deaver has Rhyme travelling to the Bahamas, but handles this much more realistically than Patterson’s excursion to Africa for Alex Cross. There is a wealth of information about knives, guns and bullets, as well as quite a bit on recipes and cooking.

Deaver will need to have his own legal team at the ready: there are so many twists and turns in both plot and characters that some reader is bound to sue for whiplash injury. He gives the reader several exciting climaxes and a truly ruthless killer, but nothing is quite what it first seems in this Deaver page-turner.
Elegy for Eddie: A Maisie Dobbs Novel
by Jacqueline Winspear
Another excellent Winspear mystery. (12/28/2014)
“Everything good has a dark side, even generosity. It can become overbearing, intimidating, even humiliating – and no one likes to think someone else is pulling the strings….”

Elegy For Eddie is the ninth book in the Maisie Dobbs series by British-born American author, Jacqueline Winspear. Maisie Dobbs, psychologist and private investigator, is asked to investigate the supposedly accidental death of a simple man with an uncanny gift for dealing with horses. Eddie Pettit was well-known and loved amongst the costermongers of Covent Garden, former associates of Maisie’s father, Frankie, and they are sceptical about the circumstances of Eddie’s death.

As Billy Beale and Maisie try to discover a motive for his death, they learn that Eddie had certain special talents that were not apparent. Maisie discovers two other deaths that were ruled suicides but which strike her as suspicious, and Billy’s investigations land him in the hospital. His wife Doreen’s slowly-recovering mental health suffers a setback, and Maisie is taken to task for her need for control. Her relationship with James Compton takes a new direction, Maisie accepts counsel from an unexpected quarter and discovers a few surprising things about her father, her best friend’s husband and her lover.

This instalment is set in April 1933, against a background of increasing Fascism in Germany that signals the possibility of another war. Winspear touches on the power of the press, the subtle use of propaganda, and the balance between freedom of information and the need for national security, as well as the position of women in society. Winspear develops her main characters more fully and her plot takes a few unexpected turns. Another excellent Winspear mystery.
The Crane Wife
by Patrick Ness
Quite magical. (12/21/2014)
“…a story …is a net, a net through which the truth flows. The net catches some of the truth, but not all, never all, only enough so that we can live with the extraordinary without it killing us”

The Crane Wife is the third stand-alone novel by American author, journalist and lecturer, Patrick Ness. He takes the old Japanese folktale of the same title and gives it a modern twist. George Duncan, a forty-eight-year-old divorced American living in London, goes outside on a cold winter’s night to find a crane with an arrow through its wing. He manages to remove the arrow, the crane flies off, and by the next day he is unsure it wasn’t all a dream. In his print shop the next day, he is toying half-heartedly with his latest artistic hobby, cuttings from discarded paperbacks mounted onto black backgrounds, when a woman comes in, introduces herself as Kumiko, and changes his life.

George’s adult daughter, Amanda is divorced from Henri, the father of her young son, JP (Jean Pierre) and, despite a loving upbringing, has difficulty maintaining close relationships, parents and son excepted. Her latest friendships with work colleagues, Rachel and Mei, seem to be disintegrating before her eyes. Amanda is stunned by the speed at which her father’s courtship of Kumiko progresses until she meets this remarkable woman herself.

This is a wonderful tale featuring quirky yet appealing characters and filled with beautiful prose: “…it was one of those special corners of what’s real, one of those moments, only a handful of which he could recall throughout his lifetime, where the world dwindled down to almost no one, where it seemed to pause just for him, so that he could, for a moment, be seized into life” and “The books on George’s walls were his sand mandala….they were the most serene reflection of his internal state. Or if not quite his internal state, then at least the internal state he would like to have had” and “…it was nothing at all like those hunched, purplish grey birds he sometimes saw skulking around the city like unwashed old gentlemen” are but a few examples.

Ness gives his characters plenty of words of wisdom: “…the inability of people to see themselves clearly. To see what they are actually like, not what they fear they are like or what they wish to be like, but what they actually are. Why is what you are never enough for you?” and explores the nature of truth and stories: “There were many truths – overlapping, stewed together – as there were tellers. The truth mattered less than the story’s life. A story forgotten died. A story remembered not only lived, but grew”

“He would tell her story. Not her whole story, of course, but the story of him and her, the story he knew, which were the only stories anyone could ever really tell. It would be only a glimpse, from one set of eyes” And what a superb story it is. Quite magical.
A Lesson in Secrets: A Maisie Dobbs Novel
by Jacqueline Winspear
Another great read (12/15/2014)
A Lesson In Secrets is the eighth book in the Maisie Dobbs series by British-born American author, Jacqueline Winspear. After being (somewhat ineptly) followed for some ten days, psychologist and investigator, Maisie Dobbs finds herself recruited into the Secret Intelligence Service by Brian Huntley (as was hinted by her late mentor during his last days), to work a job in conjunction with Robbie MacFarlane of Scotland Yard Special Branch. Having signed the Official Secrets Act, she is to pose as a psychology lecturer at The College of St Francis whilst observing for activities that are not in the interest of the Crown. But when she has been there only a week, the Principal of the College, Greville Liddicote, a staunch pacifist, is murdered. And a little research reveals quite a few possible suspects.

While Maisie is away, Billy Beale manages the Investigations business, although he is to some degree distracted by the impending birth of his fourth child. Luckily Maisie is able to convince her reluctant employee to become her tenant in a new cottage in which she invests some of her newfound wealth. A former flatmate comes to Maisie in distress: recently widowed, and with some doubt about the accidental nature of her husband’s death, Sandra accepts a job but remains unsettled. Maisie’s relationship with James Compton encounters a few hurdles.

In this instalment, Winspear touches on conscientious objection, mutiny amongst the troops, Nazism, fraud, organised crime and protection rackets, the role of women in the resistance and a nerve disorder that sounds a lot like Multiple Sclerosis. Maisie is frustrated at the Secret Service’s focus on Communism at the expense of Fascism, and Robert Stratton makes a surprise move. A baby is born and Maisie visits Wandsworth Prison. As always, Winspear blends historical fact with fiction while her plot takes a few twists before the murderer is revealed. It will be interesting to see where the next book, Elegy for Eddie takes this resourceful heroine. Another great read.
Fortunately, the Milk
by Neil Gaiman
A fun read. (12/14/2014)
Fortunately, The Milk is the fourth book for young readers by British author, Neil Gaiman. Mum’s away, Dad’s in charge and there’s no milk for breakfast. Dad pops down to the corner shop to get some, but seems to take forever to get back. He explains to his sceptical son and daughter just what took him so long.

The back cover blurb of this book claims that no Green Globby Aliens, no Pirates, no Angry Volcano Gods demanding human sacrifice, no Intergalactic Police, and no Hot Air Balloon piloted by an accomplished Stegosaurus feature, but, while not wishing to include a spoiler, this is patently false. All these things, and many more, do appear in the pages of this book. Gaiman delights young (and maybe not-so-young) readers with a brilliantly inventive plot while Chris Riddell enhances the text with lots of marvellous illustrations. A fun read.

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