Monday, 31 October 2016

Flambards by K.M. Peyton

"Christina wondered why, when she was an heiress, she had to be so utterly penniless for all the years before twenty-one".

It appeals to my juvenile sense of humour that Christina really likes Dick. I shall stop behaving like a naughty school boy and return to the subject at hand. Christina is an orphan who is due to come into a considerable inheritance upon her maturity, however, her childhood sees her passed from relative to relative. The novel begins with the latest move to her Uncle's estate, where if you're not into riding and hunting, well you're basically nothing. Christina has to learn to ride and to pick sides amongst her relatives. Uncle Russell is a frustrated hunter, unable to ride anymore after an accident. His two sons Mark and Will are polar opposites and then there's the delightful Dick, who helpfully teaches Christina how to ride.

This novel was on 2 of my to read lists - the 1001 children books to read before you die (its always before you die- let's hope that is a long way off, if only to get through all the lists) and also Julia Golding's top 10 characters from children's historical fiction  - what can I say, I love ticking off a list.
Being a children's book, I was somewhat surprised by some of the subject matters covered and yet they were covered in a sensitive way and with the perspective of a child, who is shocked to find out some home truths.What is so disturbing, to me at least, is how timeless Christina's struggle to live her own life and take control of her circumstances in her male dominated world rings true today. The book is set in 1908 and in many ways could be occurring today. When Christina is forced to cook and clean because there are no servants available it reminded me of my workplace's kitchen area- alas that is another pet peeve.

While the cover suggests this is some kind of Black Beauty style horsey novel, this is really a beautiful story about a strong female character that dances to the beat of her own drum, admittedly with the benefit of a big inheritance coming her way. There's tension, there's drama and for those disinclined there is also fox hunting ( although its gruesome reality is hinted at) and basically it makes for a great read, which was possibly the most surprising thing for me.

5 out of 5 - I now want to read the other titles in the series - drat!.

Sunday, 30 October 2016

after the quake by Haruki Murakami

"I don't like refrigerators"

What a rubbish day today was, as frustrating and strange as a Murakami story - although to be honest I much preferred the novel. After the Quake  is a strange mass of thematically linked short stories that mix reality with the surreal. A little like dating an over grown Peter Pan who vacillates between attentive and dismissive, the collection will draw you in and, like so much of his work, leave you in a small puddle of confusion. That's not to say that this isn't great. I'm a huge fan of his work, possibly because I'm slightly masochistic ( see commentary about dating Peter Pan) but also because his stories are so very different and dream (and sometimes nightmare) like. He seems to mix the hyper real with its opposite and this is no exception. While the Guardian's reviewer saw the stories as reasons for optimism , my interpretation was perhaps a little darker.

There is a continual trope of emptiness, personified in the wife's farewell note in UFO in Kushiro, "living with you is like living with a chunk of air". Reminiscent of someone who continually draws you in then casts you aside because they are devoid of any sense of inner purpose, a ghost that merely performs the function of being there.
Bears and Frogs accompany the earthquake motif and the characters share a sense of distance and remove, even when they are in close proximity. 
Only Murakami could do so much in just 132 pages and it certainly bears re-reading.

5 out of 5 times the earth doesn't always shake.

Saturday, 29 October 2016

The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life by John le Carré

"How much our poor beleaguered spies must be wishing that Edward Snowden had done the novel instead."

I have been a fan of espionage charged fiction since I was in primary school. I moved swiftly from James Bond to Jason Bourne with a few other detours in between and yet as I got older I moved into the slightly darker territory of John le CarrĂ©. The nom de plume sounding ever so important and rather more intriguing that his real name of  David Cornwall.

 When I saw that he was publishing a memoir, I immediately got on to Book Depository and ordered myself a copy, being naturally interested to see where fiction and reality intersected.
On the one hand the book brings a unique perspective to some historical events and characters, on the other the author still stands firmly behind the classified nature of some of his life and continually reminds the reader of his obligations to retain secrecy. What we get here are snippets and fortunately those snippets or anecdotes are sure to get your attention, with varying levels of success. The personal certainly brings greater resonance, for instance when the author describes real people and instances that have inspired tragic characters within his novels.

There's a sense of cathartic therapy in the author's depiction of his rather dodgy father. Throw in a lunch with Rupert Murdoch, and a number of encounters with a rogues's gallery of literary fans and you might get some sense of what you might be in for here.

4 out of 5 

Saturday, 22 October 2016

The Breast by Philip Roth

" I actually had  turned into a breast"

The jury that rests in my mind is somewhat out on this one. It is in part very reminiscent, and alludes specifically to both Kafka and Gogol. This tale of a man who turns into a disembodied breast. He rather enjoys the ministrations of  his nurse while  devoutly wishing for some penetrative interface with his lover, Claire. Whether he happens to be  a strange free floating breast or a man, Claire never seems quite capable of meeting his desires and he seems equally incapable of communicating them with her - sounds like a rock solid coupling that one.

While I feel only a man, and definitely a breast man, could have penned this short novella, it is nonetheless intriguing and quite telling that David Keppesh's first impulse is to redefine his masculinity in a slightly phallic fashion. Much of the story is about his thwarted attempts to reach completion by any means necessary - like so many phantom tinder males. That doesn't make the story less enthralling, the sense of futility is one of its high notes. A rather quick read, this was an entertaining and speedy way to check another book off the 1001 list.

4 out of 5 - don't stop now nurse.

Speaking Out: A 21st-Century Handbook for Women and Girls by Tara Moss

"Whatever helps you through the day, know that you deserve to take those minutes for yourself"

It would be so easy to be insanely jealous of the amazingly talented, Tara Moss and to be so, would do a huge disservice to this amazing woman. I would urge every woman to read this book which has so many aspects that many of us can relate to. Making up 50% of the planet, we really deserve the chance to be heard and have our many points of view considered. It might help if men read it too, just to get an idea of the state of play.

Moss merges practical advice with some depressing data to demonstrate many of the issues we face everyday and which often cause us to think "is this just my experience?". As someone who was raised to expect equality, while often being treated differently by my father particularly, (aren't we all a mass of contradictions, no surprise our parents are) speaking out and being taken seriously has been a bit of a crusade my whole life. I've constantly sought out roles in typically 'male' areas to prove that gender has no part in one's ability to deliver. This has not been a constantly positive experience and in fact I've experienced many of the quite scary ways that a voice can be challenged. Sadly, the entire chapter on Diversionary Tactics was eerily familiar and I find that abhorrent.

Thank you to Tara Moss for clearly identifying what is going on here and supporting others to find their voice, a truely admirable thing. I remember reading Tara Moss' first novel Fetish, many years ago and being shocked by its violence which seemed completely at odds with the image of a fresh faced model and yet that is such a superficial notion. Aren't we all more than our appearances and can't they often be completely deceiving or at least hint at only one part of a rounded personality? That is a lesson we all (myself included) need to learn in a world controlled by media sound bytes.

I remember the day when my sense of hope died somewhat; when I realised I wasn't invincible and that a man could physically overpower me and leave me psychologically and possibly physically scared. If I were to ever have children, it would be my fervent desire that they never had to experience that kind of rude awakening. I wish that they could make mistakes without the disapproving eyes of trolls (the worst kind of hypocrites), that they could be the best version of themselves - a fully realised intelligent human, accepting of themselves and others and always brave enough to challenge the status quo through investigation, discussion and action.

It is perhaps a mark of a really great work that the reader is left to think and relate the content to their personal experience. As you can see, Speaking Out struck a chord with me and I'd certainly recommend it to my friends and anyone who might trip over and discover my little blog.

5 out of 5 reassuring words to keep fighting on.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Agatha Raisin and the Walkers of Dembley by M.C. Beaton

"She felt quite stiff and sore after her ramble but was convinced that her skirt was a tiny bit looser around the waist."

Agatha Raisin will find any excuse to hang out with her dishy neighbour and going undercover to discover the truth behind the death of one of a group of vocal ramblers might be just the ticket. 
The body count seems to rise whenever our favourite ex PR maven pokes her nose into things and this adventure is no exception. So what can I tell you that won't ruin this one for you? Well I had it sort of ruined by the tv show, this wasn't such a bad thing given there were  enough differences to retain my interest.
Also, in amongst the murder, romance might just be blooming.  Don't listen to me, check it out for yourself.

5 out of 5 - drop your knitting and get rambling.

Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry

"He is profoundly ambivalent, as his prayers show, for when he prays to be reconciled with Yvonne he also prays to be alone, and when he wants to rise he asks that he may sink still lower."

What to say about a novel that took me so long to read ( seriously, 66 days). It felt like forever in any case. The cause of my dilemma, the thick prose- so many words crammed into a page, the drama of work and life and everything in between. It probably was not the best time to embark on a novel about a tortured relationship and the way in which alcohol can take over your life. There were times this month, when I though the action of the book had somehow spilled into reality, but I mopped that up - or at least I think I did.

At first, I wanted to hate this novel. Finishing it was torturous for me. I just needed some light hearted escapism in my life ( hence why I've finished so many Agatha Raisin books in the interim) and yet I persevered. Upon reflection, while it is not an easy book to read, it is expertly realised and I'm still thinking about it days after I'd put it down. I would say that is the reason for its critical acclaim. That and the sense of achievement you get from finishing it & despair at the ending.

It is amazing that the action takes place over such a short period when so much internal and actual drama occurs and that on reflection, is some of its brilliance. "But who could agree with someone who was so certain you were going to be sober the day after to-morrow?". There is no hope for the Consul, his estranged wife can never contemplate the internal struggles, the bargaining that goes on inside his addicted brain and he is doomed. She is such a tragic figure, living and dying on the fumes of what might have been.

If we look around the crazy world of the novel, is it not the crazy world of today? Is the alcoholic, in some ways, a realist, recognising the torment the world is in and reaching for escape  in a bottle? 
I'm not sure; that being said, if this novel didn't lead me to drink, it certainly upped my quotient. Death and destruction under the gaze of the volcanoes Popocatepetl and Ixtaccihuatl, and throw in a whole heap of Mescal for good measure.

4 out of 5 drinks could be your last and the dog's too.

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Agatha Raisin and the Potted Gardener by M.C. Beaton

"No murders while you've been away."

There's a new arrival in the village and this one is very attractive, single and unfortunately for Aggie, female. Mary Fortune may just be the most intimidating woman in Aggie's life, particularly since she seems to have caught the eye of Mr Lacey, the village's resident hunk. 
Mary has also joined the gardening club and Agatha is forced into her usual hi jinks to compete. When Mary is discovered planted and very definitely dead, its time for our amateur sleuth to get cracking and solve the case.
The villages are softening up to our Agatha and the lure of a job back in London adds additional drama to her cosy cottage life.

As always, an easy read that I managed to devour on the flight from Brisbane to Sydney over a red wine ( the joys of flying Qantas). What's a few bumps when you can spend time with James Lacey, and it feels like he might be warming to Agatha also. I know I'll be returning to the quaint village soon - heck, I'm already reading the next instalment.

5 out of 5 flower shows have never been so florid.

Sunday, 2 October 2016

Agatha Raisin and the Vicious Vet by M.C. Beaton

"As they ate, Sir Charles wondered how he was going to get around to proposing that they go upstairs to bed".

Ticked off another Agatha Raisin mystery. A dishy new vet has arrived in town to distract Agatha from the neighbourhood hunk, James Lacey and all the local ladies heads have been turned. A fatal injection of horse medicine puts paid to all their romantic plans, as vet, Paul Bladen is now deceased.
That is not the end of the body count and the best news is that investigating murders means more time legitimately spent with James Lacey- even if he resists any romantic overtures with continued vigour.

Things get really hairy when Agatha's cat  gets kidnapped. There is never a dull moment in the village and it is a happy place to hang out in. I know I can't wait to hang out there again.

5 out of 5 even though I'm not a cat-person.

Saturday, 1 October 2016

The Redbreast by Jo Nesbo

"There was another tone that was off-key"

Let me start off this review by stating that I was a little distracted while reading this Norwegian tale. I've had enough of miserable times and to be honest the idea of a gruff, ageing police officer, grim murders and nazis just wasn't quite the upbeat change of pace I was seeking.

The story drifts back and forth in time like a yo yo between the year 2000 and world war two and my scatterbrained mind was having trouble keeping apace. My delightful friend who so kindly loaned me her copy had a far more positive response to the novel and I trust her judgement. For me, the pacing was irritating in the extreme. Whenever I would settle in and get a handle on what was going on, the timeline would break with a jump forward or backward in time and I'd be lost again. This, for me, really interrupted the suspense and thriller status and left me disapointed. That being said, it was readable and there were moments that struck me as intriguing.

 3 out of 5 nazis, assassination attempts and multiple personalities.

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

"My brain had conjured them up at the very moment I was looking at their pictures."

Those familiar with my reading habits, and lets face it, most people reading my blog probably know me and are quite familiar, will know that reading the book before seeing the movie is my modus operandi. For those who have stumbled into this corner of the web by accident, now you know too. 
In any case, I'd decided to take a peek at this best selling children's book before the release of the Tim Burton film and was impressed.

This is not written in a childlike or restrained fashion. It is eerie, dark and wonderful - a rare treat. As creepy as the strange photographic images that pepper its pages, Jacob Portman's adventures blend fantasy with the pain of reality in a way that really hooks the reader in. This first book is all about scene setting and whetting your appetite for future novels. In fact, no sooner had I finished it, I'd already ordered the next two, something I would not have anticipated from the title.

You will notice that I haven't given too much away here and I'd encourage you to seek out this story unencumbered by detailed reviews and my laboured exposition. As Molly Meldrum used to say "do yourself a favour".

5 out of 5 creepy kids can be intriguing.

The Quiche of Death by M.C. Beaton

"I'm tired of bicycling and exercise routines. I feel like giving up and becoming really fat."

I had to explore the source material after having relished the recent tv incarnation starring the always amazing Ashley Jensen and a fabulous, Vivienne Westwood looking, wardrobe of wow.Click on the video, oh, but no, should I read the story first? Truth be told they are both delightful and I have a sneaking suspicion you will like them both on their own merits.

Fish out of water, ex publicity guru, Agatha Raisin has retired to the country to escape the rat race of London. Her fond memories from childhood holidays have informed her choice of the Cotswolds. Agatha arrives with perfectly coiffed hair, professionally decorated cottage and genuine ability to get everyone offside except for the friendly policeman, Bill Wong.

Trying to fit in, Agatha enters the local quiche making competition ( with store bought quiche) and her efforts are rewarded by a body count. Who knew what a hotbed of sexual intrigue the town of Carsley could be? Will Agatha discover - who done it? Will she ever be forgiven for stealing away her neighbour's cleaner? 

You will find this story as tasty as fancy quiche and far easier to digest. Fortunately there are plenty of adventures of Mrs Raisin out there to read and I look forward to discovering them. They are even easy to read on my phone which tells me this is particularly easily digestible fare.

5 out of 5 slices of tasty delights.