Reviews by Cloggie Downunder

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The Red House: A Novel
by Mark Haddon
enjoyable and thought-provoking. (12/10/2016)
The Red House is the third adult novel by British poet and author, Mark Haddon. A week after burying their mother, Angela’s brother Richard, with whom she has had minimal contact for fifteen years, offers to take both their families on holiday. Five weeks later, Dominic, Angela and their three children are on the train to Hay-on-Wye; from Edinburgh, Richard, his wife of six months and his step-daughter are in his Mercedes headed for the same destination: a week in April in a rented house in Herefordshire.

Neither couple expects this to be a jolly family get-together, but they intend to make the best of it. Four adults, three teens and an eight-year-old are gathered in close quarters, all having issues, worries or problems that are slowly revealed to a greater or lesser audience. In between (or sometimes during) meals, walks, excursions, activities and leisure, there are confessions, confrontations, accusations, revelations, tantrums and tears.

And what a feast of emotions and attitudes Haddon heaps on his characters: resentment at carrying the burden of elder care; confusion over sexual orientation; insecurity about a partner’s true feelings; enduring grief over a stillborn baby; worry over possible professional misconduct charges; teenage lust; and guilt, lots of guilt, over an extra-marital affair, over previous promiscuity, over bullying, over poor parenting.

While the adults and teens all have their very human flaws, and their words and actions are often easy to comprehend, if not always excuse, it is eight-year-old Benjy, earnest, thoughtful and wholly good, who cannot fail to both tug at the heartstrings and to delight in equal measure.

Even though nothing terribly dramatic happens over the week, and the pace of the story is quite sedate, by Friday, everyone’s lives have been changed to some extent. There are rejected kisses, a sprained ankle, hypothermia from exposure, a ghost, a stuffed owl, canoeing, bookshops, makeshift swords, desperate texts, and unreliable memories.

Haddon establishes the era with occasional, almost haphazard passages of current events, movies, music, crazes and world affairs; he treats his readers to some gorgeous descriptive prose: “A great see-saw of light balanced on the fulcrum of Black Hill, the sun rising on one end, the other end sweeping down the flank of Offa’s Dyke and switching the colours on as it went”. This is a novel somewhat reminiscent of those by David Nicholls, enjoyable and thought-provoking.
The Heart of Henry Quantum
by Pepper Harding
could have been a great novel (11/28/2016)
3.5 stars
The Heart of Henry Quantum is the first book by an American author who writes under the pseudonym, Pepper Harding. Four years ago, Henry Quantum’s brief but intense extra-marital affair with (wife and mother of two) Daisy Hillman, ended. Now, two days before Christmas, Henry sets out to buy a Christmas gift for Margaret, his wife of almost fourteen years, something that has become imperative as the proximity of the holiday dawns on him.

As Henry walks down San Francisco’s city streets in the direction of Macy’s with plans to purchase a bottle of Chanel No 5, he is regularly distracted. Then he runs into Daisy. It’s a meeting that turns his day upside down, especially when she reveals what has happened since they last met. Meanwhile, Margaret has set off to meet her lover out at Marin….

This novel is beautifully written and should have been a delightful read. Unfortunately, rather than being instantly endearing, Henry comes across as flakey and rather frustrating. It soon becomes apparent how and why his marriage with Margaret has stalled and staled. There is plenty of philosophising from Henry, to be expected given his philosophy/creative writing double major in college, as well as a good deal of rationalisation from Margaret.

The travelogue of San Francisco, the mention of streets and landmarks, which will certainly appeal to readers familiar with the city, is likely to fall flat with readers who have never been there. That, and the sweet ending fail to redeem what could have been a great novel.
Signs Preceding the End of the World
by Yuri Herrera, Lisa Dillman (translator)
short but powerful (11/27/2016)
4.5 stars
Signs Preceding the End of the World is the first novella by award-winning Mexican author, Yuri Herrera, to be translated into English. Because of her telephone, Makina is an integral part of communications in The Little Town. “Sometimes, more and more these days, they called from the North: these were the ones who’d often already forgotten the local lingo, so she responded to them in their own new tongue. Makina spoke all three, and knew how to keep quiet in all three, too”. Her mother Cora has reluctantly sent her to cross the river (the border) to take a message to her brother.

Her mother’s influence goes only so far. Mr Double U will facilitate her crossing, but when Makina goes to Mr Aitch for help: “Mr Aitch smiled, with all the artlessness of a snake disguised as a man coiling around your legs…..Here came the hustle. Mr. Aitch was the type who couldn’t see a mule without wanting a ride”. She is to carry a parcel for him.

Nine short but powerful chapters deal with Makina’s crossing, her delivery of the parcel and her search for her brother. In view of the latest US election results, this is an extremely topical story. This volume also features a note from the translator, Lisa Dillman, which is interesting as it explores the challenges in conveying intended meaning when translating.
A Place Called Winter
by Patrick Gale
incredibly moving and completely captivating. (11/19/2016)
“When a thing has always been forbidden and must live in darkness and silence, it’s hard to know how it might be, if allowed to thrive.”

A Place Called Winter is the sixteenth novel by British author, Patrick Gale. In early 20th century England, shy and stuttering Harry Cane, nurturing older brother to the infinitely more confident Jack, is rather surprised to find himself married to Winnie, and before long, a father to Phyllis. Even more surprising, the obsessive infatuation for another that forces him to abandon his family, England and the bulk of his wealth for the hardship, privation and loneliness of the Canadian prairielands. Harry is befriended on the ship by a strangely charismatic man, a Dane named Troels Munck, who commandeers his life and steers him to a land plot near the remote Saskatchewan town of Winter.

The narrative alternates between two time periods: Harry’s life after he leaves a mental asylum and joins the therapeutic community run by the unconventional Dr Gideon Ormshaw at Bethel; and the events of his life from when his father died, events that led up to his admission to the asylum. Based on story of his own great-grandfather’s life, Gale’s story portrays the reality of pioneering in the Canadian wilderness. It also touches on accepted therapies for mental illness at the time and the dangers of being a homosexual in this era. Gale has a marvellous talent for making the reader feel true empathy for his main character: it is virtually impossible not to feel Harry’s heartache, his anxiety, his anger and his fear, but also his love.

Gale’s descriptive prose is a pleasure to read: “She looked after the geese and ducks and was an excellent shot, regularly bagging wild duck…. She also shot rabbit and the occasional hare. These she would pluck or skin herself in an efficient fury all the more self-righteous for being unapplauded and unregarded” and “As Troels came to stand beside him, Harry smelt the musk of his sweat and something else, something threatening, if threat had a smell” and “There were stars, a seamless, spangled fishnet of them from horizon to horizon, coldly lighting the land and lending the farm buildings, outlined sharply against them, an eerie loveliness” are just a few examples.

Fans of Gale’s work will not be disappointed, and newcomers to his work will want to seek out more of it. This beautifully written novel is incredibly moving and completely captivating.
With thanks to Hachette and The Reading Room for this copy to read and review.
The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles
by Katherine Pancol
Funny, moving and highly entertaining (11/13/2016)
The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles is the first novel in the Joséphine series by French author, Katherine Pancol. When she discovers her unemployed husband Antoine (call me Tonio) is having an affair with his manicurist, Joséphine Cortès kicks him out of their Paris apartment and resolves to somehow manage, with two daughters, on her own. Her meagre salary at the CNRS as a 12th Century historian will need to be supplemented; luckily, her brother-in-law, Philippe Dupin offers her some translation work.

When Antoine and his mistress, Mylène desert Paris to run a crocodile farm in Kenya, Joséphine knows her daughters’ survival is dependent on her: 10-year-old Zoé can still be reassured, but 14-year-old Hortense is becoming a wilful handful. And the bank manager has a nasty surprise for Joséphine. Desperation and a sense of filial loyalty see her agreeing to a dubious deal with her glamorous (and manipulative) sister, Iris: Jo will write a novel set in 12th Century France; Iris will relish doing the publicity and taking the credit; she’ll funnel the fees to Jo.

Pancol’s plot is wholly credible; it has a few twists and turns to keep things interesting as some two years of Joséphine’s life are detailed against a backdrop of other family and neighbourhood dramas: an eviction, a secret Royal baby, a long-standing unrequited love, a black-sheep twin, repressed memories, internet dating, lovers, plenty of gossip, mistresses, revealing YouTube clips, fake designer bags, hungry crocodiles, failing marriages, and a longed-for heir.

Pancol gives the reader a diverse cast of characters, none perfect, all flawed, all very human, with their strengths and weaknesses, none wholly good or bad: a few are easy to despise; others draw the reader’s sympathy; insecure and reticent, Joséphine will, at first, frustrate, as we wait and hope for her to lose her naiveté and develop some backbone. And everyone has secrets they’re not telling.

This first book (of three so far) is translated from the original French by William Rodarmor and Helen Dickinson. Readers who enjoy this novel will be pleased to know that the second book, The Slow Waltz of Turtles is also available in English. Funny, moving and highly entertaining, this is a very enjoyable read.
The Girl in Green
by Derek B. Miller
exciting, insightful and entertaining: another brilliant read. (11/11/2016)
The Girl in Green is the second novel by American novelist and international policy specialist, Derek B. Miller. It’s late March 1991, and United States Army Private Arwood Hobbes is at the northern edge of Checkpoint Zulu, “maintaining a vigilant perimeter” in Iraq’s newly-brokered peace, when a British journalist from the Times wanders up.

Thomas Benton is a seasoned war correspondent who’s after the story from a local perspective. With some encouragement from Arwood, he walks toward nearby Samawah, intent on interviews and ice cream. A surprise attack sees Hobbes and Benton trying to rescue a villager, “the girl in green”, but the situation somehow ends badly, leading to their removal from the area and an eventual “other-than-honourable” discharge for Hobbes.

Fast forward twenty-two years, when a lingering feeling of guilt and a YouTube clip see Hobbes and Benton once again trying to rescue “the girl in green”. Is it human design or divine intervention that sees the original players of the drama and its aftermath gathered together again? Their mission is surely insane and bound to fail!

As with Norwegian By Night, Miller gives the reader an original plot with plenty of action, a twist or two, and a thrilling climax. Generous doses of tension are relieved by the banter between the characters, which is often blackly funny. Miller’s characters are wholly believable and, for all their quirks and very human flaws, especially appealing.

Miller’s considerable personal experience in both conflict zones and policy making is apparent on every page and he raises several thought provoking topics, including the intricate coordination and extensive diplomatic skills required in hostage negotiations, the crazy Catch 22 in the Department of Veteran Affairs that exists for veterans needing psychological counselling, the failure of foreign organisations to become familiar with the language, politics and customs of the countries they are purporting to aid, and the fate of national staff of NGOs when their employers withdraw due to escalating hostilities.

Miller gives the reader a novel that is topical and highly relevant in today’s world. Fans of Norwegian By Night will not be disappointed with Miller’s latest literary foray and will be hoping for more from this talented author soon. The Girl in Green is exciting, insightful and entertaining: another brilliant read.
Small Great Things
by Jodi Picoult
Moving and thought-provoking (10/24/2016)
“What if the puzzle of the world was a shape you didn’t fit into? And the only way to survive was to mutilate yourself, carve away your corners, sand yourself down, modify yourself to fit?”

Small Great Things is the 22nd adult novel by American author, Jodi Picoult. Ruth Jeffries is an experienced neonatal nurse, working in the Labour and Delivery suite at Mercy-West Haven Hospital in Connecticut. Having performed her usual checks on baby Davis Bauer, she is shocked to be told she may not have any further contact with him. Turk Bauer is a White Supremacist and determined that no black nurse is going to touch his child.

Notwithstanding the directive, some time later Ruth finds herself faced with a dilemma when Davis stops breathing. Despite emergency intervention, Davis dies and Turk is convinced that Ruth is responsible. When Ruth is arrested, it is Public Defender Kennedy McQuarrie who represents her for the arraignment, and helps her seventeen-year-old son organise bail. Seeing the opportunity to gain experience, Kennedy asks to be assigned to Ruth’s case, a case that would normally go to someone more experienced.

Picoult uses three narrators: Ruth, Turk and Kennedy give the perspective of the black defendant, the White Supremacist and the privileged white lawyer who believes herself impartial to race. Characters that begin as somewhat stereotypical soon develop a depth that may surprise. Likewise, the plot that seems to be headed to a fairly predictable conclusion develops a few interesting twists. Drama and tension are relieved by the delightfully funny banter between Kennedy and her family.

This is a story that is packed with emotion: sorrow and grief, love and hate, guilt and shame, all guarantee some lump-in-the throat moments. Words of wisdom and insightful observations are a feature: “It is amazing how you can look in a mirror your whole life and think you are seeing yourself clearly. And then one day, you peel off a filmy gray layer of hypocrisy, and you realize that you’ve never truly seen yourself at all”

Picoult also gives the reader some marvellous descriptive prose: “Turk Bauer makes me think of a power line that’s snapped during a storm, and lies across the road just waiting for something to brush against it so it can shoot sparks” and “We passed a few women in the kitchen, who were bouncing from fridge to cabinets and back like popcorn kernels on a hot griddle, who were exploding one at a time with commands: Get the plates! Don’t forget the ice cream!” are examples.

Of course, only a person of colour may judge if Picoult’s portrayal of a black woman is accurate, and, while many will criticise this white author, with her privileged upbringing and education, for having the audacity to present a black person’s perspective, her extensive research, as mentioned in the author’s note, is apparent in every paragraph.

Racism is a big topic to tackle, so if an author of Picoult’s talent and reputation can make even a few more people truly aware of it, and cause them to honestly examine their own attitude towards it, then this book is worthy of praise. Moving and thought-provoking, Picoult’s latest offering is another brilliant read.
This Must Be the Place: A novel
by Maggie O'Farrell
an unadulterated pleasure to read. (10/10/2016)
“She wasn’t going to look at him again, no, she wasn’t….. Then she did look and the same sensations hit again, like a row of dominoes toppling into each other: the towering sense of recognition, the disbelief that she doesn’t somehow know him, the ridiculousness that they do not know each other, the impossibility of them not seeing each other again”

This Must Be The Place is the seventh novel by British author, Maggie O’Farrell. Claudette Wells is Daniel Sullivan’s second wife. Even after several years of living together in a remote corner of Donegal, and fathering two children with her, he still finds it hard to believe that this eccentric, occasionally crazy, reclusive and beautiful ex-film star ever agreed to marry him. Later, he will remember this, and wonder what possessed him to put all that at risk. But now, a chance snippet of a radio broadcast, heard on the way to the train, sets him on a path to his past.

Daniel heads off to New York, to his (not at all beloved) father’s 90th birthday party, makes an unplanned detour to California see the son and daughter from whom he has been kept for nine years by a vindictive ex-wife, then detours again to Sussex. What he learns there has such a profound effect on him, it threatens to derail the best thing in his life.

O’Farrell has done it again! This extended family, this cast of characters, they pull the reader in. She draws each of them so well, with all their flaws and foibles, that the reader cannot help but find them appealing, hoping that things will turn out okay for them, laughing with them when they do and shedding a tear or two when they don’t.

The story is told by many different characters: the perspective of some is given numerous times; others share their perceptions only once; conveniently, each chapter is clearly marked with the character and the time period; as well as contributing to the main story, these alternate views give vignettes of other, associated lives; most are conventional first-person or third-person narratives, but there is a second-person one, one with footnotes, a transcript of an interview, and even an auction catalogue with images; the chapter headings are phrases lifted from the text therein, producing a tiny resonance when they are read in context.

O’Farrell’s descriptive prose is wonderfully evocative: “An amount of time later – he isn’t sure exactly how much – Daniel is walking in through the gates of the cemetery. He comes here at least once a day. It gives him an aim, a kind of routine. He makes his way along the gravelled path, letting his eye rest on the hundreds and hundreds of gravestones, watching the way they pull themselves into diagonal columns as he passes, then unpeel themselves, then line up again. An endless process of arrangement and disarrangement” is one example.

“He thinks of his grief over his sister as an entity that is horribly and painfully attached to him, the way a jellyfish might adhere to your skin or a goitre or an abscess. He pictures it as viscid, amorphous, spiked, hideous to behold. He finds it unbelievable that no one else can see it. Don’t mind that, he would say, it’s just my grief. Please ignore it and carry on with what you were saying” is another example.

Fans of O’Farrell’s earlier novels will not be disappointed. Readers new to her work are sure to seek out her backlist. Yet another O’Farrell novel that is an unadulterated pleasure to read.
Dear Mr. M
by Herman Koch
A brilliant read! (9/25/2016)
“It’s not something that can simply be turned on and off, this constant observing of superabundant detail; he is a writer, he tells himself, but the vacuuming up of details is purely obsessive. Often, after a day in the city, or a meal in a crowded restaurant, he comes home exhausted by all those faces and their irregularities.”

Dear Mr M is the eighth novel by Dutch actor, television and radio producer, newspaper columnist and author, Herman Koch, and the third to be translated into English. “Dear Mr M” is the salutation that begins a long letter to the ageing and formerly best-selling author who has moved into a flat in Amsterdam, from the younger man who lives in the flat below. Mr M’s bestseller was a thriller about a high school history teacher who was murdered by two of his students after having an affair with one of them. It was based on actual events that occurred at Terhofstede in late December some forty years previous.

In real life, police never recovered the teacher’s body, the teenagers protested their innocence, and much of actually happened was unknown. M did what authors do best, and filled in the gaps with his imagination. But it seems the man writing to M knows the story much more intimately: wouldn’t M like to know what really happened?

The story is split between the present day and that eventful year forty years ago The first person narrative by Mr M’s downstairs neighbour is supplemented by third person narratives from the perspective of Mr M, his young wife, one of the students involved and the teacher. Koch’s characters are multi-faceted: few are quite what they first appear to be, none is entirely blameless and all possess some very human flaws.

Koch gives the reader highly original plot with plenty of twists, back-flips, red herrings and a conclusion that will leave the reader gasping; he manages to include a fist fight, book signings, a bit of stalking, and the making of home movies. There is quite a bit of satire, some irony and plenty of humour, some of which is rather black, some tongue-in-cheek, starting with the disclaimer: "Anyone who thinks he recognises himself or others in one or more characters in this book is probably right. Amsterdam is a real city in the Netherlands"

This novel is cleverly crafted to keep the reader constantly wondering about the truth; this keeps the pages turning as the facts about what happened at Terhofstede, and what led up to it, are gradually revealed. Koch’s commentary on authors, both best-selling and mediocre, on publishers, on librarians, on interviews and author events, is accorded authenticity from his obvious personal experience. Flawlessly translated from the original Dutch by Sam Garrett, this novel is Koch’s best yet. A brilliant read!
Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End
by Atul Gawande
Recommended (9/21/2016)
Being Mortal is the fourth book by American surgeon and author, Atul Gawande. Early on in his book, he tells us :“…the purpose of medical schooling was to teach how to save lives, not how to tend to their demise” and that “I knew theoretically that my patients could die, of course, but every actual instance seemed like a violation, as if the rules I thought we were playing by were broken. I don’t know what game I thought this was, but in it we always won”.

But don’t get the wrong idea: this is not a book about dying, so much, as a book that looks at how the latter hours, days, weeks, months or even years of life can be improved. As we get older, and usually frailer (because there is no “…automatic defrailer…” p44 available to us), we need to rethink where the emphasis should lie: “…our most cruel failure in how we treat the sick and the aged is the failure to recognise that they have priorities beyond merely being safe and living longer…”

“We end up with institutions that address any number of societal goals – from freeing up hospital beds to taking burdens off families’ hands to coping with poverty among the elderly – but never the goal that matters to the people who reside in them: how to make life worth living when we’re weak and frail and can’t fend for ourselves”. Gawande’s wife’s grandmother, when institutionalised, remarked: “She felt incarcerated, like she was in prison for being old”

Gawande backs up his ideas with plenty of data that is both fascinating and revealing. And while an information dump could be boring, he illustrates all this with the results of studies and anecdotes about real people. It doesn’t get much more personal than the experience of his own father’s decline.

“Our responsibility, in medicine, is to deal with human beings as they are. People die only once. They have no experience to draw on. They need doctors and nurses who are willing to have the hard discussions and say what they have seen, who will help people prepare for what is to come…”

While many practitioners of palliative care will be familiar with what Gawande says, this book should be compulsory reading for most health care professionals. Oncologists, gerontologists, surgeons and intensivists (and their patients!) in particular would benefit from reading this book from cover to cover; those of us with ageing or debilitated family members, or those wanting to plan for their own eventual decline, would also find this book interesting and useful.

He concludes: “We’ve been wrong about what our job is in medicine. We think our job is to ensure health and survival. But really it is larger than that. It is to enable well-being. And well-being is about the reasons one wishes to be alive. Those reasons matter not just at the end of life, or when debility comes, but all along the way. Whenever serious sickness or injury strikes and your body or mind breaks down, the vital questions are the same: What is your understanding of the situation and its potential outcomes? What are your fears and what are your hopes? What are the trade-offs you are willing to make and not willing to make? And what is the course of action that best serves this understanding?” Recommended.
Darktown
by Thomas Mullen
Gritty and informative, this is a brilliant historical page-turner (9/20/2016)
“There was a lot that Rake was learning about his new occupation. He had survived against steep odds for years in Europe as an advance scout, had been alone for long stretches and had wisely figured the difference between threats and opportunities, collaborators and spies. Back home in Atlanta, however, he was finding the moral territory more difficult to chart than he’d expected”

Darktown is the fourth novel by American author, Thomas Mullen. In 1948, with a Negro population probably in excess of 115,000, Atlanta, Georgia had eight Negro police officers. Their powers of arrest were markedly fewer than those of white police officers, they were not issued with patrol cars, and they were quartered in the basement of a YMCA building. These startling facts underpin Thomas Mullen’s story of the murder of a young black woman and the black officers determined to find her killer.

Negro Officer Lucius Boggs is with his partner, Negro Officer Thomas Smith when they witness a Buick driven by a white man in knock over a light pole. They note a black female passenger, and give chase on foot when the driver leaves the scene. They observe him hitting her before she escapes from the car. Days later, they find her body in a pile of refuse. Boggs is no detective: his duties consist of walking his beat; but he is determined that her death will not go unpunished.

There is no love lost between the white officers and the Negro officers: it doesn’t help that the black cops have to call in white cops to make white arrests. When Boggs and Smith call for assistance in the traffic case, Dunlow and Rakestraw’s cruiser is slow to appear. Dunlow, old school and patently racist, ignores Boggs and Smith, and lets the driver off lightly; his rookie partner is more inclined to value their input.

Mullen follows known facts about the first Atlanta eight fairly closely in his tale, and the mention of actual historical figures gives the story authenticity. Each narrative, be it from the perspective of a fearful black sharecropper, an ageing white racist cop, a six-year-old negro boy, a white rookie, a back madam or a rookie negro police officer, has a genuine feel. He conveys the Atlanta of the immediate pre-civil rights era with consummate ease.

The characters are realistic: none of these black policemen is entirely blameless; even the most racist white officers have some virtues. The plot is wholly believable: there are a few twists, but there is no Hollywood ending here, and it is evident in the closing pages that Atlanta still has a long way to go. But Hollywood is apparently interested in turning Mullen’s book into a TV series, and it will certainly translate well. Gritty and informative, this is a brilliant historical page-turner.
The Rosie Effect
by Graeme Simsion
A funny, moving and sometimes thought-provoking read. (9/14/2016)
The Rosie Effect is the second novel by Australian author and playwright, Graeme Simsion, and the sequel to his highly popular novel, The Rosie Project. Now married, Don and Rosie are living in a cramped New York apartment while, as a visiting professor at Columbia, Don continues his research on alcoholic mice and Rosie studies to gain her MD qualification. Don’s friend, Gene, a geneticist and serial adulterer, has finally exhausted his wife’s tolerance for philandering and been thrown out, so Don invites him to stay with them, unwisely neglecting to check with Rosie first. And before he gets a chance to do so, Rosie announces that they are having a baby.

Don’s solution to multiple problems (accommodation deficit with respect to the imminent arrival of an overseas guest and an eventual addition to the family; a laundry confrontation with a neighbour; a twice-daily beer-related commitment; financial stress due to the (Don-induced) loss of employment at a cocktail bar; the need to keep Rosie’s stress levels at a minimum) is a wonderfully elegant example of lateral thinking that only someone of his extraordinary talents could manage.
Gene’s advice on fatherhood is mostly sound, but unfortunately rather too vague for Don, who manages to get himself into trouble involving police, counsellors and support groups.

Mindful of the results of Rosie’s own research into the effects of stress during pregnancy, Don wants to spare her any anxiety and eventually tangles himself (and several others) in a web of deceit. His eccentric manner of dealing with Rosie’s pregnancy and his own impending fatherhood ends up threatening their happiness together. Luckily, he has friends (six, now!) who care and his boy’s night out group (recently expanded to include a rock star, and a psychology professor in addition to a refrigeration engineer) provide unique support.

In Don, Simsion has created a character who is easy to love: he cares about his friends, is completely guileless, somewhat innocent and totally without malice. He has wholehearted enthusiasm for, and dedication to, any project he decides to take on. Simsion introduces a few new characters and expands on characters that readers will remember from The Rosie Project, so there are a few sub-plots keeping Don busy. This novel is filled with an abundance of hilarious situations that will have the reader snickering, groaning and laughing out loud as Don navigates his way through dinners (the Bluefin Tuna Incident), toddler observation (the Playground Incident), counselling sessions (the Good Fathers Project), research projects (the Lesbian Mothers Project), errors in judgement (the Second Ultrasound Misunderstanding), encounters with Loud Woman, Bubonic Plague Woman and an opinionated social worker, and tries to reinstate the Standardised Meal System (pregnancy version).

Don’s instinctive solution to any problem is a spreadsheet, and his Baby Project bathroom-tile spreadsheet sounds fascinating. Ditto Jim’s soundproof crib. There are Gregory Peck impersonations, Rosie impersonations, men sharing their deepest secrets, a perfect anniversary celebration engineered for Don by Rosie, and, of course, bouts of morning sickness which elicit Don’s logical (if unsympathetic-sounding) response: “Feeling unwell is normal in pregnancy. It’s almost certainly a good sign.…..Your body is probably assembling some critical component, such as an arm, and is minimising the possibility of toxins disrupting the process.”

Simsion’s latest novel takes a light-hearted look at medical research projects, sustainable meal choices, social workers, pregnancy and of course, fatherhood. Apart from the many laughs, there are also a few lump-in-the-throat moments and readers who loved The Rosie Project will not be disappointed. A funny, moving and sometimes thought-provoking read.
Cat Out of Hell
by Lynne Truss
highly entertaining (9/5/2016)
Cat Out Of Hell is a novel by British writer and journalist, Lynne Truss. When Alec Charlesworth’s beloved wife, Mary dies, he heads to a cottage on the coast of North Norfolk with their dog, Watson, to grieve privately. Isolation is what he craves, but, finding he needs some mental stimulation, turns on his laptop to read an email from a library colleague of Mary’s. It contains several files concerning a cat called Roger, and by the end of his perusal, Alec is confused, sceptical and rather irritated.

Back home, a visit to Mary’s library has Alec wondering if there might be some truth to the files; when the sender of said files pays him a visit, he begins to doubt that the cause of Mary’s death was natural. Soon he is deeply involved in an escapade that features several murders, hidden books, library theft, emergency hospital visits, talking cats (and dogs?), and even Beelzebub himself.

Truss uses a format of straight narrative combined with emails, transcripts of recorded conversations, screenplays, descriptions of photographs, telepathic messages and even questionnaires. It helps to pay attention to the early chapter headings, as these form part of a later chapter. The tone of the whole tale is very much tongue in cheek and the result is quite hilarious in places. Some horror, plenty of humour, highly entertaining. 4.5 stars
Vinegar Girl: Hogarth Shakespeare Series
by Anne Tyler
Witty and funny (8/14/2016)
“She had always been such a handful – a thorny child, a sullen teenager, a failure as a college student. What was to be done with her? But now they had the answer: marry her off. They would never give her another moment’s thought”

Vinegar Girl is the twenty-first novel by American author, Anne Tyler, and is written under the Hogarth Shakespeare banner. It is billed as William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew retold. At twenty-nine, Kate Battista is in a dead-end job she doesn’t particularly like, and saddled with looking after her air-head fifteen-year-old sister and her workaholic father. Kate is no shrinking violet though: she lets them know what irritates her in no uncertain terms. Her boss suggests she practice restraint but: “The unsatisfying thing about practicing restraint was that nobody knew you were practicing it”

So when Dr Louis Battista suggests she marry Pyotr Shcherbakov, his brilliant research assistant, whose O-1 visa is about to run out, she lets her father know how she feels: “We are not in another culture, and this is not an arranged marriage. This is human trafficking….You’re sending me to live with a stranger, sleep with a stranger, just for your own personal gain”

Pyotr tries to court Kate, despite her irritability, her rudeness and her flat refusal to help. And despite the gross insult she perceives at the suggestion, his enthusiasm, his lack of guile and his straight talking begins to weaken her resolve “…they say you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar” she tells him. “Yes, they would,” Pyotr said, mysteriously. “But why would you want to catch flies, hah? Answer me that, vinegar girl”

Anne Tyler’s version of this classic Shakespeare tale is an absolute delight. Her characters are ordinary people with flaws and believable quirks; their dialogue is just as ordinary and everyday; and yet, they are endearing, each in their own way. Her descriptive prose is marvellous: “an unhealthy-looking young man with patchy beige chin whiskers that reminded Kate of lichen”. And the tale is filled with humour: the reader will find themselves smiling, chuckling and (at least at the wedding ceremony) laughing out loud. Witty and funny.
Carrying Albert Home: The Somewhat True Story of A Man, His Wife, and Her Alligator
by Homer Hickam
Funny and moving, this is a very enjoyable read. (8/8/2016)
“Elsie had always felt her life was like a jigsaw puzzle with no picture on the box to show her how the puzzle pieces should fit together”

Carrying Albert Home: The Somewhat True Story of A Man, His Wife, and Her Alligator is a book with a title that is certainly lengthy-yet-succinct and quite intriguing. This memoir by American author, Homer H. Hickam Jr. is his account of his parents, Elsie and Homer’s epic adventure with an alligator named Albert (and a rooster), in which (Hickam’s website tells us) everything is true, except the bits that are made up. Which is no doubt why the cover says “a novel”. Some say it could be considered a prequel to his Coalwood series.

An embarrassing incident with Albert leads Homer to issue Elsie with an ultimatum, "Me…or…that…alligator”. The decision is made to carry Albert home from Coalwood, West Virginia to Orlando, Florida. Albert travels in a quilt-lined bathtub on the back seat of Homer’s Buick. For no apparent reason, a russet-coloured rooster with green tail feathers decides, at the last minute, to join them. Homer takes two weeks’ leave from the mine, expecting to be back in Coalwood by then. But the trip does not go according to Homer’s plan.

When they finally reach Florida, they encounter Elsie’s former beau, singer and dancer, Buddy Ebsen, the man who was responsible for sending them the hatchling Albert as a wedding gift. Buddy apologises if Albert caused them any trouble. Homer, by this stage is quite angry: “Oh, no trouble at all. Your marvellous gift merely made us abandon our house, get caught up in a bank robbery, run illegal moonshine through North Carolina, get cast adrift in the Atlantic Ocean, act in a jungle movie, and get all but blown away in the Keys! No, sir. No trouble at all”. Their adventure has also included joining a bunch of radicals, flying a plane and meeting John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway.

Underlying the crazy adventure with all its quirky characters is the love story between Elsie and Homer, which hits a few rough patches before a relatively happy ending. But the real star of the story is, of course, Albert (although the rooster does have a certain appeal). Funny and moving, this is a very enjoyable read.
Outlander
by Diana Gabaldon
Addictive (7/13/2016)
Outlander (also titled Cross Stitch) is the first book in the Outlander series by American author, Diana Gabaldon. Claire Beauchamp Randall, ex-army nurse, is on vacation in Scotland with her husband Frank, a historian. It’s 1946, and they are combining Frank’s quest for more information about his ancestors with the opportunity to reconnect after six years of wartime apart. Jonathan “Black Jack” Randall was apparently active in the area, back in the eighteenth century.

A visit to the Standing Stones at Craigh na Dun goes awry when Claire suddenly finds herself at the edges of a battle between the English garrison and the Highlanders. It becomes apparent that this is no longer 1946. And while the garrison commander looks like Frank, and claims to be Jonathan Randall, his behaviour soon has her grateful for her rescue by a Highlander. Her nursing skills bring her in close contact with an injured Scottish outlaw, Jamie Fraser.

Despite wanting desperately to get back to Frank in 1946, after four months, Claire is astounded to be married to Jamie, hunted by Randall and living in the primitive conditions of the eighteenth century. Even more surprisingly, she realises she is happy. But it is 1743, and Claire knows that the dramatic events of Culloden are not far off.

Gabaldon gives the reader a tale that is part romance, part adventure, part historical and part sci-fi. She manages to include a Highland Gathering, plenty of fights and battles, torture, flogging, imprisonment, a wedding, a childbirth, a reunion, a channel crossing, a very novel prison escape, an opium-fuelled mental healing, a witch trial, quite a bit of sex and perhaps even a touch of magic. Despite the 800 pages that contain a wealth of information about the Scottish Highlands in the eighteenth century, the characters and the plot are so compelling that this page-turner that will have readers seeking out the second volume in the series, Dragonfly in Amber. Addictive.
The Bones of Grace
by Tahmima Anam
A brilliant read. (7/4/2016)
“You realise, don’t you, Elijah, that this is the way you worked your way into my heart? Not just in those days together in Cambridge, but in the aftermath, when I couldn’t stop talking about you, when every turn of my story included a footnote of conversation as I pictured how you might respond, the way the desert light would catch your hair, the effect of the parched, history-heavy air on your voice. What would you have made of all this, the green flags of our tents on the lunar surface of this ancient place, our little argument with time”

The Bones of Grace is the final book in the loosely connected Bengal trilogy by British Bangladeshi writer, novelist and columnist, Tahmima Anam. Zubaida Haque is writing to the man she fell in love with one Cambridge afternoon at a Shostakovich Preludes concert. Elijah Strong is not the man she married, but Zubaida is writing to explain what led to her the actions that she knows broke his heart.

The story she tells, parts of which he of course knows well, details their first meeting, just days before she departed for an archaeological dig in Pakistan. As a palaeontologist, Zubaida has been selected to help unearth the bones of the “walking whale”, Ambulocetus, near a remote village. But events conspire to put her back in her hometown, Dhaka, much sooner than expected, and she finds the pressure to enter into the expected marriage, too much to resist.

Anam’s extensive research into many topics is apparent on every page and she manages to include a myriad of interesting subjects in her narrative: as well as the evolution of the whale and archaeology digs, she explores the industry of ship-breaking, the plight of ex-pat construction workers in Dubai, undocumented adoption and the search for a birth mother, and for a long-lost lover. She weaves a wealth of curious facts into a plot that itself is mesmerising, and does so with some gorgeous descriptive prose.

“The light came in as we waited, and then there it was, a sliver on the horizon. We watched as it grew. More of the men arrived, wiping the sleep from their eyes. The curve of the ship began to appear, and now we could see the gleam of the hull, a poem of curves rising out of the remnants of dark, and suddenly it was before us, as if it had turned a sharp corner, white, immense, violent” and “She is a person with guilt at the very core of her being, and she spends her days compensating others for the fortune that brought her a life, a marriage, me. She is a moral economy all to herself, painted in tiny strokes of the past” are examples.

Anam’s characters are multifaceted, all have flaws, and the reader cannot help but care about their fate. While this novel is part of a trilogy, it can easily be read as a stand-alone, but readers are likely to want to seek out the earlier books by this talented author. A brilliant read.
The Grim Grotto
by Lemony Snicket
fun read (6/26/2016)
The Grim Grotto is the eleventh book in A Series of Unfortunate Events by American author, Lemony Snicket (aka Daniel Handler). As we once again join the unlucky Baudelaire orphans, they find themselves sailing down the Stricken Stream on a toboggan towards the ocean. Is it coincidence that they are rescued by a submarine whose crew (Captain Widdershins and Fiona) are on a mission to find a certain important sugar bowl, one the Baudelaire orphans also seek?

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

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

This instalment sees the Baudelaires donning undersea suits, doing their best to avoid a deadly fungus, being captured (again!) by Count Olaf, repairing a porthole, and finally washing up on the Briny Beach, the place where the whole unfortunate tale began. Will they be in time to stop Olaf from destroying the Hotel Denouement? Perhaps the Penultimate Peril will have the answer.
Get in Trouble: Stories
by Kelly Link
plenty of dark humour (6/26/2016)
Get in Trouble is a collection of nine short stories by American author, Kelly Link. Each of the stories has been previously published in other publications from as early as 2006. The stories are varied in both format and subject matter, although each one seems to feature some element of alternate reality and have a highly original plot with a twist or two to keep it interesting. There are Summer Visitors of quite a different kind, internet gaming worlds, an internet date that goes wrong in an unpredictable manner, an unusual theme park, a pair of nervous expectant gay fathers, bizarre teen toys, weird pocket universes and an attempted suicide with a potato peeler.

In these very different stories, Link manages to somehow logically combine: butter sculptures, dentists and superheroes; a surrogate mother, a gay couple, a bunch of left-over wedding dresses and a premmy baby; space ships, haunted houses and ghost stories; a jealous teenager, an antique locket and a ghost toy; pyramids, an asp and a pair of spoiled rich siblings; double shadows, twins, mermaids, iguanas and a hurricane; a Land of Oz theme park, superpowers and a childhood friend; a demon lover, an actress and a ghost.

There is plenty of dark humour in these tales; they are imaginative, sexy, often fantastic and great fun to read. Fans of Kelly Link’s work will not be disappointed with this latest collection.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
by Karen Joy Fowler
A clever, moving and thought-provoking read. (6/11/2016)
“You learn as much from failure as from success, Dad always says. Though no one admires you for it”

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is the eighth novel by prize-winning American author, Karen Joy Fowler. Rosemary Cooke’s sister Fern disappeared from her life when she was just five years old. When she was nearly twelve, her brother Lowell left. The absence of her two beloved siblings was never discussed at home.

From the perspective of a kindergarten teacher in her late thirties, Rosie tells the story of her unusual upbringing. She starts in the middle, during her time at UC Davis, because she had been told, often enough, by her psychologist father: “Skip the beginning; start in the middle”.

By this time, the once loquacious girl was almost taciturn. Throughout her childhood, members of her family advised “If you have three things to say, just tell the most important one”. Even more effective at reducing her chat was her brother’s later remonstration “If only you had, just for once, kept your goddamn mouth shut!” She still “thought as much as ever… Without the release of talking, these thoughts crowded my brain. The inside of my head turned clamorous and outlandish, like the Mos Eisley spaceport bar in Star Wars”

In the telling of the how and why her siblings are absent, Rosie delves into psychology experiments and primates and the unreliability of memories. And while a psychologist practicing on his family is probably de rigeur, today’s ethics committees would surely have vetoed what took place during Rosie’s childhood.

While the theme of love, of loss, and cruelty gives the story an undercurrent of sadness, Fowler includes plenty of humour, some of it quite black. She gives the reader a collection of quirky characters; her descriptions of faculty life in an Indiana college town in the late seventies and a Californian University town in the mid-nineties has a very genuine feel, no doubt as they draw on her own life experiences. Lost luggage, a French Revolution puppet and animal liberationists all feature. A clever, moving and thought-provoking read. 4.5 stars

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