Review: THE DISCOURTESY OF DEATH by William Brodrick

TheDiscourtesyOfDeathBroderickIt is pretty rare these days for me to pick up a book that I have no prior knowledge of but it did happen with my book club’s choice of William Brodrick’s THE DISCOURTESY OF DEATH this month. I enjoyed starting a book with absolutely no preconceived ideas about it.

Set in present-day England the novel features a monk (who I’d have thought would be called Brother but seems to be known as Father) Anselm who is relatively new to his vocation, having been a criminal lawyer before experiencing something of an epiphany about the inadequacies of the law, specifically incidents in which he has successfully defended people who are guilty. At the beginning of this story Anselm is the subject of a feature article in a Sunday newspaper that details his exploits as a monk who investigates cases that the police can’t or won’t become involved with. This publicity prompts Anselm’s Prior to allow him to have a more public focus than the other members of the Larkwood Priory; to take his particular form of ministry ‘on the road’ if you like. The first case resulting from this decision starts with an anonymous plea for Anselm to investigate the case of Jenny Henderson who died several years previously. Relatively recently paralysed following an accident and newly diagnosed with cancer there is some question as to whether she was murdered or possibly the subject of an assisted suicide.

THE DISCOURTESY OF DEATH is an atypical crime novel in that it does not concern itself with the procedural elements of investigation nor, really, the practical elements of the crime itself (assuming one has been committed). Instead the novel uses a crime, or an incident to be precise, to explore from several angles the question of whether or not it is possible to justify the killing of a human being. Issues surrounding ‘mercy killing’ and euthanasia (assisted or not) are explored, but the novel also tackles the subject of whether or not the killing of one person can or ought to be justified if it is likely to prevent a greater amount of suffering. I’m sorry if it’s a spoiler but it is pertinent to report that the book doesn’t provide any definitive answer to these thorny questions (it would be a very different and, for me, far less successful book if it did so) but it does explore the morality of the issues in a very considered and respectful way. In our modern world it seems everyone has a fully formed opinion on all the great moral issues and all anyone wants to do is to loudly argue the correctness of their side of any subject, so I was rather pleased to encounter a book which seemed only to want to raise questions and provide insights that might assist readers in forming their own views on the topics it explores.

I suppose due to the nature of the novel some of the traditional elements such as character and plot development are not in evidence in the way you’d expect and this does take some getting used to. That the victim is fairly one-dimensional is not that rare but here so are the family and friends who surround her. They seem to me to be serving as representatives of a particular segment of the moral spectrum, archetypes if you like, rather than as well-rounded human beings in their own right. This approach served this particular book well but it certainly isn’t one that would fulfil readers looking for characters to really identify with and/or develop an intimate knowledge of. The plot meanwhile is in some ways quite simple, revolving around a few key events, but the novel’s drama comes from each version of ‘the truth’ that gets revealed about what may have happened.

My only real quibble is that aside from its main themes the book’s lack of questioning of some subjects was…uncomfortable. For example everyone in the novel seemed to accept that a ballet dancer becoming paralysed is equivalent to the end of a life but I can acknowledge that the book couldn’t tackle more issues than it did with the same kind of depth and intelligence and all the characters were really taking their lead from Jenny who did feel that to be true in her case.

I don’t imagine this is a book for everyone. It is quite slow, is at times driven more by philosophical contemplation than pure narrative and there is not a definitive resolution in sight. However, if you are up for a practical exploration of multiple sides of a weighty moral issue and can deal with an ambiguous ending then I thoroughly recommend it.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher Little Brown [2013]
ISBN 9781408704738
Length 336 pages
Format paperback
Book Series #5 in the Father Anselm series

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Review: W IS FOR WASTED by Sue Grafton

WIsForWastedGraftonSue21190_fSeries heroine Kinsey Millhone, who has only aged about 6 years to my 30 since we first met in the mid 1980′s, is contacted by her local Coroner’s Office because they have the unidentified body of a homeless man who was carrying her name and phone number in his pocket. Might she be able to identify him? She cannot but, due to a lack of clients in her private detective business at the time, decides to investigate a little. Which leads to getting to know some homeless people, eventually identifying the body, making a connection to the death of a local private investigator a few months earlier and meeting some more of her extended family.

If a suspenseful and/or poignant story of academic greed and wasted lives ever existed in Grafton’s mind it is lost within the nearly 500 pages of minutiae the finished publication became. The story here is unnecessarily complicated with insignificant details and there seems to be a larger than normal amount of the usual filler (fast food meals being described in more detail than anyone could possibly be happy with, detailed depictions of driving routes taken and so on). There’s also just a lot of unnecessary blather. For example at one point Kinsey’s car gets a flat tyre which results in a long interaction with two dull but helpful tourists she meets at (yet another) fast food restaurant and is ultimately proven to be due to mildly malicious intent. But this incident adds nothing to the story or any character’s development and the whole episode is just…a waste of time. It is not an isolated incident.

I waded through W IS FOR WASTED with the kind of dogged determination Kinsey herself might use when cleaning her tiny apartment or finishing some other dull but worthy task and only because I am heavily invested in seeing this particular series through to the bitter end. If you are not similarly cursed by having your entire adult reading life coincide with the publication of these novels I wouldn’t recommend this one. If you are a series stalwart I presume nothing I say will stop you from reading this instalment, but don’t say you weren’t warned.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Since starting the blog I’ve read T is for Trespass, U is for Undertow (my favourite of these recent instalments) and V is for Vengeance.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Publisher Mantle [2013]
ISBN 9780230769151
Length 486 pages
Format paperback
Book Series #23 in the alphabet series

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Books of the month: March 2014

I thought being ultra busy in March and so not doing as much reading as normal would at least make my choice for book of the month an easy one. Alas, I am torn between two novels but as both are by terrific Australian writers and as I set my own rules for this monthly wrap-up I shall highlight them both.

ElementalAmandaCurtinAmanda Curtin’s ELEMENTAL made me cry in public but I’ve forgiven the author that embarrassment. It’s a beautiful work of historical fiction about a woman born into the hardship of a remote Scottish fishing village who makes her way to Australia.

TheLostGirlsJamesWendy21952_fWendy James’ THE LOST GIRLS is the latest release from the author who is my favourite discovery from three years of participation in the Australian Women Writers challenge. It is the story of a teenager’s murder in 1978 which has an impact that lasts for decades.


The Rest (in reading order)

  • Louise Phillips THE DOLL’S HOUSE part police procedural, part psychological thriller with a dash of something approaching horror as well by a new to me Irish author I’ll be looking to read more from
  • Arne Dahl BAD BLOOD was featured in my book vs adaptation post this month
  • Yrsa Sigurdadottir SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME a strong contender for this year’s Petrona Award
  • Dick Francis EVEN MONEY
  • Elly Griffiths THE OUTCAST DEAD one for fans of the series only I think

Progress towards book-ish goals

As far as official challenges go I read 2 more books for the Australian Women Writers challenge, bringing my total to 6 out of the 24 I’m aiming to read this year.  But I failed to read a single book from my TBR pile that existed prior to the start of the year and didn’t read any more books for the reading USA fiction challenge either. Oh well!

My unofficial, personal challenges are travelling OK though

  • I still haven’t bought any physical or eBooks from overseas stores
  • I read another title by a female Irish crime writer
  • I read a non-crime novel (and I started another one but really wasn’t enjoying it so

What about you? Did you read anything memorable during March? Are you reading goals for the year on track or have the wheels started to fall off? Do you care either way?

Review: THE OUTCAST DEAD by Elly Griffiths

TheOutcastDeadGriffithsAudioElly Griffiths’ sixth novel featuring forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway and friends is very much concerned with the topic of motherhood. In a grim present-day investigation police are looking into the death of a baby, the third of Liz and Bob Donaldson’s young children to have died. Although on the surface there is nothing particularly suspicious with respect to the death, DCI Harry Nelson finds it difficult to believe that in the modern world three children in the one family would all die unexpectedly and he focuses on Liz who was home alone with her son when he died. Meanwhile the university archaeologists are agog at having discovered the bones of an infamous woman known as Mother Hook, a child minder missing a hand who was hanged for the murder of one of her charges in 1867. Ruth and her discovery are to feature in an episode of a TV series called Women Who Kill though the dashing historian working on the show thinks he can prove Mother Hook might not have been what she seemed. If that’s not enough motherhood for you there are two kidnappings of young children from their respective child minders and almost every character is a new(ish) mum overdosing liberally on mummy guilt.

I enjoyed catching up with my old friends Ruth, Harry and Cathbad (yes fans, he does make an appearance) in much the same way as I enjoy catching up with any group of likeable old friends but I’m not sure there’s a lot else to say about this book. One of the things that struck me as I listened to the delightful narration by Clare Corbett is that I could not imagine recommending the book to anyone who hasn’t read the earlier books in the series. If you are not already invested in the existing relationships and characters of this series I’m not sure there is enough here for you.

There’s a lot of action and …stuff…but it’s all a bit chaotic and superficially dealt with as the reader’s attention is drawn to something only to have it whisked away a few pages later. The possible murder of the Donaldson baby generates an unbelievably moderate reaction from most of the constabulary (Harry’s nearest offsider positively chides him for even suggesting something is rotten and I don’t care that she is standing up for the sisterhood or whatever she is meant to be doing: three children from the one family dying separately is worth questioning pretty bloody seriously) while the kidnappings have an unreal feel to them. The historical case is interesting but the diary entries upon which much of it rests are all a bit too…convenient. Though at least the resolution of that thread is in keeping with the rest of it; the other two threads, in particular the one concerning the Donaldson baby, are resolved in ways that don’t really play fair with readers who like to deduce for themselves as they rely on information not provided.

I suspect that all sounds harsher than I mean it to but I just can’t help but think the only people who will enjoy this book are those already well entrenched in the lives of Ruth and the gang. Or perhaps the odd mother feeling the need to wallow in mummy guilt (‘cos the real world doesn’t give her enough of it every day).

It has always been true of this series that the complexity of the criminal investigations (both recent and historical) take a back seat to the relationship dramas and wry observations but the pendulum seems to have swung a bit too far here for me. Especially as some of those observations are more worthy than wry and there’s little that grates on my nerves more than earnest worthiness (yes I accept that says more about the blackness of my own soul than it does about the book). I was happy enough to listen as I drove for a week or so but unless you’re already a die-hard fan I’d start with something earlier in the series.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Narrator Clare Corbett
Publisher Quercus Publishing [2014]
Length 9 hours 18 minutes
Format audio (mp3)
Book Series #6 in the Ruth Galloway series

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Review: SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME by Yrsa Sigurdardottir

SomeoneToWatchOverMeSig21927_fI know it’s not the normal way of doing things but I feel the need to talk first about a couple of things SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME isn’t. For a few days now I’ve been staring at the bright red balloon on the front cover of my copy which proclaims ‘Iceland’s answer to Stieg Larsson’, getting angrier by the minute at yet one more piece of stupid, inaccurate marketing. In an effort to avoid being hopelessly side-tracked by the rant quadrant of my brain I’ll just say that if you read the book expecting something akin to a further instalment of the adventures of Lisbeth and Mikael you will be disappointed (which is, let me be clear, not nearly the same thing as suggesting the book itself is disappointing).

The other thing that SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME isn’t is short. There was a cruel kind of irony in reading a book which I was never able to hold comfortably due to its heft in which this sentence appears, “Lena was lying on a nice soft sofa, but she couldn’t get into a good position due to the weight of the book she was holding”. I recommend a good editor for all.

Now that I’ve got my grizzling out of the way I can turn to all the things I did like about SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME.

Its premise is simple enough: Icelandic lawyer Thóra Gudmundsdóttir is hired to prove that a young man called Jakob, who has been locked away in a secure psychiatric facility for setting fire to the care home in which he was living, is innocent. But the story turns out to be a complex one in which many twists are cleverly revealed. And underlying it all is a gently thought-provoking social commentary.

One of the themes the book tackles overtly without being strident is the myriad faces of disability and how the disabled are treated by society at large and the individuals around them. The care home that burned down was an experimental one housing patients with a range of disabilities including Jakob who has Down’s syndrome, a severely autistic teenager and a young woman with locked-in syndrome. As Thóra tries to piece together the case she confronts her own (and others’) ignorance about Down’s syndrome and the other disabilities that the people she meets or discusses live with, and is depicted with the awkwardness about not inadvertently giving offense that the average person who doesn’t deal regularly with anyone with a disability might have. Sigurdardottir achieved a good balance between realism and sensitivity here, never being stupidly politically correct but also not shying away from highlighting that some of the most difficult challenges people with disabilities face are the expectations (or lack thereof) that other people have of them.

The other theme it’s hard to ignore is the fallout from Iceland’s spectacular financial collapse in recent years which seems to impact everyone in the story in some way or another. Things are difficult for Thóra’s family as her boyfriend Matthew has lost his job in banking and she has to take her parents into her home (along with her own children, her son’s girlfriend and their baby) because they’ve hit financial hardship. More broadly there are cutbacks in essential government services, people doing work they hate due to a lack of options and a general malaise that seems quite palpable. Although you might not believe it if you paid any attention to most media, Australia pulled through the GFC relatively unscathed so it is particularly interesting to me to read something that seems to offer genuine insight into what other countries have been through.

The characterisations here are quite lovely with Thóra being amusing, intelligent and persistent as always and not afraid to admit there are things she doesn’t know. Her desire to help achieve justice for people who have been wronged is on particular show here in respect to Jakob as well as another case which comes to light during her investigation. Her relationship with Matthew is sweet without being mushy and because he is her polar opposite in terms of basic personality the pairing offers an entertaining extra element to the book (perhaps I am biased though as I share some of Matthew’s love of order). Jakob and Ragna, the girl with locked-in syndrome, are the only two residents of the care home who survive the fire so the only ones we get to meet ‘in person’ (rather than via the memories of their families) and it is nice to see them both depicted as people with personalities rather than disabilities.

So, despite being a little disgruntled about a couple of aspects of SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME (one of which I’ll admit isn’t the author’s fault) I thoroughly enjoyed the novel. Even the appearance of a ghost managed to maintain my interest and I found the ending very satisfying which is something of a rarity. Highly recommended.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Translator Philip Roughton
Publisher Hodder & Stoughton [2013]
ISBN 9781444734423
Length 483 pages
Format trade paperback
Book Series #5 in the Thóra Gudmundsdóttir series

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Book vs Adaptation: Bad Blood

The book

BadBloodArneDahlAudioThe second available in translation from what is now a ten book series in the original Swedish, BAD BLOOD sees Sweden’s team of elite police investigators (Team A) on the trail of a vicious killer. The first victim is a Swedish literary critic whose hellishly tortured body is discovered at an American airport and it becomes apparent that after carrying out the murder the killer hopped on a plane to Sweden. Despite the advance warning they receive, police miss catching him on arrival, in the first of what becomes a long list of increasingly implausible plot devices, thereby leaving him free to go on a killing spree in Sweden. They soon learn they are on the lookout for a particularly nasty American serial murderer known as the Kentucky Killer, thought to have been dormant since his 18-body killing spree a couple of decades earlier.

BAD BLOOD was originally published in 1998 and I tried hard to remember that perhaps crazed serial killers weren’t quite as overdone then as I feel they are now. Though I’m not convinced I’d ever have bought into the premise of this particular story with its torture-crazy, cross-continent, multi-generational killer(s). Even though there is ultimately some kind of rationalisation here I still found the level of clichés and preposterous plot devices just too high for me.

There is some social commentary in the form of the now ubiquitous nods to the changes in Swedish social makeup and behaviour but more dominant themes included the unwanted the incursion of American culture into Swedish society and the book’s eponymous subject. I had been keeping a count of how many times variations of the phrase “bad blood wins out in the end” were repeated but I lost my post-it note with the tally. I’m pretty sure we’d made it to double figures and the book wasn’t yet finished. My take away messages were that America is bad and you can’t fight genetics.

I’m afraid the characters didn’t do much for me either. The first victim is so thoroughly unlikable that it was hard to care who’d killed him or why, even his own family didn’t give a toss so readers can hardly be blamed for not caring about him. Dahl uses a team of investigators to propel the investigative component of the story rather than focusing on one or two leads and while I know some writers can make this work I don’t really feel that Dahl has done so here. To me they are basically a collection of fairly indistinguishable angst-ridden, middle-aged men. Plus a token female.

So for me BAD BLOOD was the write-by-numbers thriller of the kind that people who don’t read crime fiction think makes up the entire genre. An unspeakably evil person does unspeakably horrid things while basically good people try to stop him but they fail for a while because otherwise there wouldn’t be a story. There’s not really much of substance and the only genuinely original angle was the particularly gruesome torture method used by Dahl’s killer which didn’t really add anything to my enjoyment level. It’s basically a ‘meh’ on my personal scale.

The adaptation

The adaptation appears as the second, movie-length episode of a Swedish television series made in 2011 of the first five books of Dahl’s series. It follows the plot of the novel reasonably closely (at least until the end) though plays around with other elements of the source material. Most notably this includes the use of Irene Lindh playing the role of Jenny Hultin, a hands-on, female boss for Team A and evening out the gender balance a little. The rest of the core team members are the same as in the book (though there are fewer team members in total) and the casting is very good across the board.

The movie is a little more subtle than the source material in the way it tackles the theme of bad blood, though fathers and sons do keep cropping up, but is probably a little more overt in its anti-American stance though this could well be a reflection of the fact it was made more than a decade after the book was written. The timing possibly had something to do with the adjustment to the overt ‘blokeyness’ of the source material too. I’m sure the altered ending played well to its Swedish audience but it worked better for me too as it felt a little more realistic.

The winner?

Though not won over by Dahl’s first novel (Misterioso) I was happy enough to give the second one a go but I think that’s where I will stop reading the books. However, having watched the first two episodes now I can see myself watching the remaining three episodes of the TV series so I guess that means the adaptation is the winner on this occasion. In the case of BAD BLOOD the writers have done a decent job paring down the somewhat lengthy source story to get to its essence and the dialogue-heavy script is a good medium to show off the best attribute of the original material which is the slightly humorous team dynamic. The good casting only adds to this. The story still as annoying aspects – such as the scant attention paid to the victims of crime – but for me it did work better in the visual medium.

If you’ve read the book do you think I’m being too harsh, perhaps due to having read a few too many similar tomes and having reached my lifetime quote for this type of novel? Or is Dahl benefiting somewhat unjustifiably from the fact that Scandinavian crime is the in thing right now and just about any old thing will do as long as it’s vaguely Nordic? If you’ve seen the film do you like it any better than the source material?

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Review: THE DOLL’S HOUSE by Louise Phillips

TheDollsHousePhillipsEarlier this year I embarked upon a personal challenge to track down some crime writing by female Irish writers other than the ubiquitous Tana French and the second book to meet this criteria is Louise Phillips’ THE DOLL’S HOUSE. The book is not recognisably a specific sub-genre, being part police procedural, part psychological thriller with a dash of something approaching horror in the mix (at least the kind of horror that used to exist before vampires took over the show). I liked it very much.

Its unusual structure is the first noticeable thing about it. Chapters are short – often only a page or two – and each has a title of either a significant location or one of the characters. I’ve seen this type of approach go horribly wrong but Phillips handles it well, using the choppiness to both introduce the many disparate elements of her story quickly and to keep readers as unsettled as some of her characters are for the duration of the novel.

In quick succession we meet psychologist Kate Pearson who is working on a rape case for the police as well as seeing her regular patients including a young anorexic girl. Then a policeman called O’Connor (if his first name is ever mentioned I missed it entirely) who is unsuccessfully battling his demons with alcohol when put in charge of the investigation into the drowning murder of a local TV celebrity in a Dublin canal. Then a middle-aged, recovering alcoholic called Clodagh who is desperate enough to retrieve childhood memories she plans to undergo hypnosis. Then a predatory young bloke called Stevie, consumed by dark thoughts and bitterness about the things he doesn’t have.

Phillips’ characters display the kind of messy contradictions that real people generally muddle through life with which means they are sometimes frustrating or unlikable but always credible. O’Connor for example is a basically decent cop but has a secret that both challenges that premise and makes him very believably human. Kate is a good psychologist - in fact the sections in which she provides advice to police are some of the most believable of their type I’ve ever read because they don’t offer the Criminal Minds type of “you’re looking for a 27 year old man who drives a Jeep, wears Nike runners and has an IQ of 133” profile – but she is blind to problems looming in her own life. Clodagh had such a troubled relationship with her recently deceased mother that you’d think she’d have fought to form a different kind of bond with her own daughter but perhaps she is doomed to repeat the pattern?

Normally I look for a strong sense of location from my crime fiction but there was a discernible lack of “Irishness” about THE DOLL’S HOUSE. However I suspect that might have been deliberate and if so it’s something I can forgive as I’ve an idea that writers in environments like Ireland and South Africa are probably a bit fed up with the expectation that their work will at least indirectly explore the fallout from the political woes of their respective histories. Here, even though the present-day case turns out to have ties to events 25 years in the past, there’s no hint of The Troubles, and the book could have been set in any large city which has suffered, or is still suffering, through the global financial crisis of the past half-dozen years. That said, Phillips does compensate by providing a very strong localised setting via the old family home in which Clodagh grew up and to which she returns many times during her regression therapy. It is this house with its mysterious attic and creepy doll inhabitants that added the horror element of the novel for me.

THE DOLL’S HOUSE kept me interested from start to finish not only because I wanted to know whodunit but because I wanted to know why. And what else was lurking in the shadows. It’s hard to do sustained suspense and character depth in the one novel but Phillips has nailed both elements. Thoroughly recommended.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher Hachette books Ireland [2013]
ISBN 9781444743050
Length 400 pages
Format paperback
Book Series #2 in the Kate Pearson series

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Review: ELEMENTAL by Amanda Curtin

ElementalAmandaCurtinI’m going to give her the benefit of the doubt and presume that Amanda Curtin did not set out to deliberately cause me the messy embarrassment of unexpected tears in public. I’ll concede that she wasn’t to know that the tale of Margaret Duthie Tulloch – or Fish Meggie as I will always think of her – would have me sobbing uncontrollably and mumbling about allergies. Though if I’m to be scrupulously honest it wasn’t the story itself – achingly sad though much of it is – that made me cry but rather Meggie’s acute observations about her world and the exquisite prose Curtin has used to express her character’s thoughts. Laced with terms from several local Scottish dialects the book is a sheer delight for lovers of the written word.

Meggie was born of sea people in a tiny village in far north-eastern Scotland in 1891. As if the life of unrelenting poverty and hard work expected by all who were born in that place at that time wasn’t grim enough, Meggie suffered the additional curses of being female and having red hair, which according to local beliefs made her a danger to any fisherman, especially if she crossed his path just before he went to sea. Eighty-odd years after her birth Fish Meggie is ill and decides to write her story – or some of it anyway – as a present for her granddaughter and so begins to fill three notebooks with her memories.

In ELEMENTAL there’s not a trace of the twee romanticisation of poverty and hardship that infuses a lot of the historical fiction I’ve read. Meggie’s life begins with a different kind of childhood from the one we think of as normal today

Loved you were, aye, in the way of those days, a careless kind of love that took all manner of things for granted. But if you had a thought in your head there was none who would stoop to hear it and none to say you mattered the peeriest thing. And if you were a girl, you’d get used to that, aye. You would forever be the last, in a world where the words of men and the ways of shoalfish and the direction of the wind were what mattered.

I canna imagine a child of today taking it into their head that they were not the centre of all else. That the world was not waiting for the next thing they might say (p13-14)

Allowed to go to school only because the law demands it Meggie does develop a devotion to books which lasts her whole life and she also knows the love of her mother, her older sister Kitta and, for a time anyway, that of a stray dog who adopts her as his very own. But with her father and brothers gone fishing for much of the year the only man she has much contact with is her grandfather – a hate-fuelled, ignorant man who makes young Meggie’s life far harsher than it needs to be. As if living amongst a people “steeped in the ins and outs of restraint” and being expected to perform endless hours of back-breaking chores in freezing temperatures weren’t bad enough.

Sorrows do follow Meggie as she breaks away from her dreaded village for a life on her own which eventually takes her across the world to Western Australia but there is laughter and family and a love story too that combine to save ELEMENTAL from falling into the wallowing, misery-lit category of fiction.

As is usually the way though it was the things to which I could personally relate which sent me scuttling for tissues in the aforementioned sobbing incident. I was not quite two years old when the last of my grandparents died so I have no personal experience of any of the grandparental relationships Meggie describes but as both of my parents now have a form of dementia her observation about the differences between memory (a transient, unreliable kind of fact list) and memories (individual versions of the truth which stay with us forever) knocked me for six. As did her notion of her more elusive parent “A father was little more than an idea to me…a man-shaped shadow by the fire”. I stopped reading in public after that.

In case you’re in any doubt I adored ELEMENTAL. Even though it made me cry. In public. Even though I felt physically bereft at the early loss of the narrative voice of Meggie when the book abruptly switched to the voice of her granddaughter and her daughter-in-law for its conclusion.

It is a beautiful book.

Thanks to Angela Savage for her heartfelt recommendation of this book that might not otherwise have crossed my radar.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

awwbadge_2014This is the fifth novel I’ve read and reviewed for this year’s Australian Women Writers Challenge. Check out my challenge progress and/or sign up yourself

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher University of Western Australia Publishing [2013]
ISBN 9781742585062
Length 436 pages
Format paperback
Book Series standalone

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Books of the month: February 2014

VisitationStreetPochodaI21813_fThere were four books vying for selection as my best read for February but in the end I’ve chosen Ivy Pochoda’s VISITATION STREET by the narrowest of margins (the other three are marked with asterisks in the list below). Its story of two young girls who take their hot pink rubber raft down to the shore on a hot summer’s night and the impact on their neighbours and families when only one of them comes home is…beautiful.

The Rest (in reading order)

Progress towards book-ish goals

As far as official challenges go I’m sailing reasonably well on two of the three challenges for which I’m signed up

  • I read 2 more books for the Australian Women Writers challenge, bringing my total to 4 out of the 24 I’m aiming to read this year.
  • I’ve read another of the 51 books needed to complete the Reading USA Fiction challenge (49 to go, good job I haven’t set a deadline for this one but have made a commitment to read a book set in each state that is by a new-to-me author).
  • After a strong start last month I only read two books from my pre-existing TBR shelves/devices in February; a rate which won’t get my to my goal of 40 for the 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge. Must try harder.

My unofficial, personal challenges are a little shaky but I’m not too worried yet

  • On the bright side I still haven’t bought any physical or eBooks from overseas stores
  • Less positively, I didn’t read any more books by female Irish crime writers (though I do have one on my nightstand ready to go), I only read one book by a male Aussie writer (versus two by women authors) and I didn’t read anything you could really say isn’t crime fiction (though VISITATION STREET barely scrapes in to the definition).

What about you? Did you read anything memorable during February? Are you reading goals for the year on track or have the wheels started to fall off? Do you care either way?

Review: EVIL AND THE MASK by Fuminori Nakamura

EvilAndTheMaskNakamuraAudioMost of the positive reviews of this book seem to concur that its premise is some combination of fascinating and credible. I didn’t find it either of those things which is possibly why I found the entire thing hard going.

Said premise is that there is a particular Japanese family whose special secret is that they are – by choice – deliberately evil. For the sake of it. Our story’s anti hero, Fumihiro Kuki, is 11 when first told by his elderly father that it is his destiny to be a cancer on society. However, little Fumihiro soon becomes determined not to follow the path pre-determined for him, primarily because of his love for Kaori, a young girl who was adopted by his father from a local orphanage.

I know that all fiction demands the suspension of disbelief but I’m afraid I never got there in this instance. The whole “our family is a cancer” thing just seemed ridiculous to me and I’m not entirely convinced the author bought into his own premise. In the end it offered not much more than a very clunky platform for the author to have a too-long rant about the world being a rather horrible place.

Putting aside the issue of me never really believing there would be a family of people who choose to be evil “just because”, I did actually enjoy the first third of the novel. It switches between Fumihiro’s present-day experiences, when he has undergone plastic surgery and taken on a new identity, and his recollections of his childhood, beginning with his father’s unsettling announcement. The way that his father intends to ensure Fumihiro’s adherence to the evil creed is…well…truly evil…and I couldn’t help but be engaged by wondering how Fumihiro would respond.

However from about a third of the way through, the book lost its way. It seemed to move from a traditional narrative to a diatribe about the modern world, as if the author had almost forgotten there were characters at all (though there’s a bit of gothic romance thrown in I suppose). There were several very long monologues about terrorism, the beauty industry, modern economics and so on which at no point felt even remotely natural and these were forced into a somewhat meandering story that ultimately went nowhere very surprising (and literally ended in the same place it had started).

I really liked THETHIEF, the first of Nakamura’s books to be translated into English, and while EVIL AND THE MASK started with promise I’m afraid it didn’t sustain my interest. Its relentless nihilism combined with awkward lecturing was not to my taste.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Narrator Kirby Heyborne
Translator Satoko Izumo & Stephen Coates
Publisher AudioGO [2013]
Length 9 hours 11 minutes
Format audio (mp3)
Book Series standalone

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