Category Archives: Fiction

Early Riser – Jasper Fforde

Cover image of 'Early Riser'
Early Riser – Jasper Fforde

I have always enjoyed Mr Fforde’s novels – they’re quirky, clever, witty and fun. We have even read the Dragon Slayer series as a family – we are desperately waiting for the next one.

Here is the blurb …


Every Winter, the human population hibernates. 

During those bitterly cold four months, the nation is a snow-draped landscape of desolate loneliness, and devoid of human activity.

Well, not quite. 

Your name is Charlie Worthing and it’s your first season with the Winter Consuls, the committed but mildly unhinged group of misfits who are responsible for ensuring the hibernatory safe passage of the sleeping masses.

You are investigating an outbreak of viral dreams which you dismiss as nonsense; nothing more than a quirky artefact borne of the sleeping mind.

When the dreams start to kill people, it’s unsettling.

When you get the dreams too, it’s weird.

When they start to come true, you begin to doubt your sanity.

But teasing truth from Winter is never easy: You have to avoid the Villains and their penchant for murder, kidnapping and stamp collecting, ensure you aren’t eaten by Nightwalkers whose thirst for human flesh can only be satisfied by comfort food, and sidestep the increasingly less-than-mythical WinterVolk.

But so long as you remember to wrap up warmly, you’ll be fine.

I did enjoy this although I though it was a tad too long (I am thinking that about a lot of books lately, so it could be me).

This is very quirky – humans hibernate (to avoid the terrible winters) and in order to survive the winter hibernation they need to bulk up (and they get a winter coat of hair/fur). There is a drug they can take to help with the hibernation (and to stop them dreaming, which uses too many calories and they might not make it to spring), but it has risks. Some people become ‘nightwalkers’ (essentially zombies – they even like to eat people). Add in a novice winter consul (our hero), a shady corporation, strange weapons and Wintervolk and you have a swashbuckling adventure story with lots of fun along the way.

More reviews …

From tor.com – this one was great, what I thought, but expressed much more eloquently.

and

Kirkus Reviews 

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The Year of The Farmer – Rosalie Ham

Cover image of the 'Year of the Farmer' by Rosalie Ham
The Year of the Farmer – Rosalie Ham

I have enjoyed all of Rosalie Ham’s novels. Summer at Mount Hope, There Should be More Dancing and The Dressmaker. 

I reserved it at the library (trying to reduce the enormous number of books in my house) thinking it would take ages to be my turn, but it arrived very swiftly.

It was very good – laugh out loud funny, very Australian  and with something to say about rural living, and water (its scarcity, how it’s used and who gets to use it).

Here’s the blurb…

In a quiet farming town somewhere in country New South Wales, war is brewing.

The last few years have been punishingly dry, especially for the farmers, but otherwise, it’s all Neralie Mackintosh’s fault. If she’d never left town then her ex, the hapless but extremely eligible Mitchell Bishop, would never have fallen into the clutches of the truly awful Mandy, who now lords it over everyone as if she owns the place.

So, now that Neralie has returned to run the local pub, the whole town is determined to reinstate her to her rightful position in the social order. But Mandy Bishop has other ideas. Meanwhile the head of the local water board – Glenys ‘Gravedigger’ Dingle – is looking for a way to line her pockets at the expense of hardworking farmers already up to their eyes in debt. And Mandy and Neralie’s war may be just the chance she was looking for…

More reviews …

https://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/rosalie-ham-down-on-the-farm-for-another-dark-satire-20180919-h15lh5.html

https://www.australianbookreview.com.au/abr-online/archive/2018/5125-brenda-walker-reviews-the-year-of-the-farmer-by-rosalie-ham

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Unsheltered – Barbara Kingsolver

Image of the cover of Unsheltered

Unsheltered – Barbara Kingsolver

I have had a mixed response to Barbara Kingsolver. Some of her work I have loved – The Poisonwood BibleFlight Behaviour and others (The Lacuna) so much. However, I have never thought any were so bad I couldn’t read her anymore. So I was keen to read this one.

Here’s the blurb …

The New York Times bestselling author of Flight Behavior, The Lacuna, and The Poisonwood Bible and recipient of numerous literary awards—including the National Humanities Medal, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and the Orange Prize—returns with a timely novel that interweaves past and present to explore the human capacity for resiliency and compassion in times of great upheaval.

Willa Knox has always prided herself on being the embodiment of responsibility for her family. Which is why it’s so unnerving that she’s arrived at middle age with nothing to show for her hard work and dedication but a stack of unpaid bills and an inherited brick home in Vineland, New Jersey, that is literally falling apart. The magazine where she worked has folded, and the college where her husband had tenure has closed. The dilapidated house is also home to her ailing and cantankerous Greek father-in-law and her two grown children: her stubborn, free-spirited daughter, Tig, and her dutiful debt-ridden, ivy educated son, Zeke, who has arrived with his unplanned baby in the wake of a life-shattering development.

In an act of desperation, Willa begins to investigate the history of her home, hoping that the local historical preservation society might take an interest and provide funding for its direly needed repairs. Through her research into Vineland’s past and its creation as a Utopian community, she discovers a kindred spirit from the 1880s, Thatcher Greenwood.

A science teacher with a lifelong passion for honest investigation, Thatcher finds himself under siege in his community for telling the truth: his employer forbids him to speak of the exciting new theory recently published by Charles Darwin. Thatcher’s friendships with a brilliant woman scientist and a renegade newspaper editor draw him into a vendetta with the town’s most powerful men. At home, his new wife and status-conscious mother-in-law bristle at the risk of scandal, and dismiss his financial worries and the news that their elegant house is structurally unsound.

Brilliantly executed and compulsively listenable, Unsheltered is the story of two families, in two centuries, who live at the corner of Sixth and Plum, as they navigate the challenges of surviving a world in the throes of major cultural shifts. In this mesmerizing story told in alternating chapters, Willa and Thatcher come to realize that though the future is uncertain, even unnerving, shelter can be found in the bonds of kindred—whether family or friends—and in the strength of the human spirit.

At first I was compelled. I loved both of the narrative strands. In the middle I got a bit stuck – the stories were sad and seemingly hopeless, but I pushed on and I am glad that I did because it ended strongly and with a hopeful positive feeling.

You can listen to Barbara Kingsolver talking about it on the BBC Radio 4 Books and Authors podcast.

More reviews

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/oct/14/unsheltered-barbara-kingsolver-review

https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/in-barbara-kingsolvers-unsheltered-trump-is-just-the-latest-threat-to-earths-survival/2018/10/16/6aebe630-d140-11e8-b2d2-f397227b43f0_story.html?utm_term=.fcbf806d8725

https://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/barbara-kingsolver-her-life-is-quiet-her-fiction-is-loud-20180119-h0kt7k.html

 

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The Lover – Marguerite Duras

The Lover – Marguerite Duras

This was the last of the classic french novels for my historical fiction study group. I bought the Kindle edition and read it while I was out-and-about; waiting for appointments, or to collect children, so my reading was scattered and very unfocused. This was not helped by the style of the book, which jumped about a bit.

Here’s the blurb …

Saigon, 1930s: a poor young French girl meets the elegant son of a wealthy Chinese family. Soon they are lovers, locked into a private world of passion and intensity that defies all the conventions of their society.

One thing I noticed was that, despite the shortness of the novel (more of a novella), it packed in a lot. And the detail was vivid – the hat, the shoes, the ferry on the Mekong, etc.

This isn’t my favourite classic french novel (that’s Madame Bovary).

More reviews …

https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/98/11/01/nnp/duras-lover.html?module=inline

On a Pedestal

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The Book of Strange New Things – Michel Faber

The Book of Strange New Things

I first saw this novel on Mercy’s Musings and then when I saw it at the library I decided I had to read it.

Here’s the blurb …

‘I am with you always, even unto the end of the world…’

From the author of Under the Skin and The Crimson Petal and the White, the first novel from Michel Faber in fourteen years is a wildly original tale of adventure, faith and the ties that might hold two people together when they are worlds apart

Peter Leigh is a husband, a Christian, and now a missionary. As The Book of Strange New Things opens, he is set to embark on a journey that will be the biggest test of his faith yet.

From the moment he says goodbye to his wife, Bea, and boards his flight, he begins a quest that will challenge his religious beliefs, his love and his understanding of the limits of the human body.

This momentous novel is Faber at his expectation-defying best. It is a brilliantly compelling book about love in the face of death, and the search for meaning in an unfathomable universe.

The plot of this novel is quite quirky – a foreign planet with indigenous inhabitants who want to learn more about Jesus. The planet, Oasis, is interesting – strange spiral rain (I think the cover is inspired by the rain), no big flora (there is a mushroom the Oasans use to manufacture all sorts of food for the humans), or fauna (apart from the Oasans, bugs and a strange duck thing).

There is an underlying sense of dread or menace – what happened to the previous minister? what are USIC’s plans for Oasis? that keep you turning the pages. It is beautifully written, full of detail that creates the new world of Oasis, but also show us the decay of the Earth.

It is about faith (and what that means), family and what we owe to each other as a community.

More reviews …

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/oct/26/book-of-strange-new-things-michel-faber-review

https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/book-review-the-book-of-strange-new-things-by-michel-faber/2014/11/25/143d099c-70fd-11e4-ad12-3734c461eab6_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.fee0f10857a0

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To the Light House – Virginia Woolf

To the Light House – Virginia Woolf

This has been on my ‘to be read’ pile for sometime. I am not sure why it took me so long to get to it.

Here’s the blurb …

For years now the Ramsays have spent every summer in their holiday home in Scotland, and they expect these summers will go on forever; but as the First World War looms, the integrity of family and society will be fatally challenged.
To the Lighthouse is at once a vivid impressionist depiction of a family holiday, and a meditation on a marriage, on parenthood and childhood, on grief, tyranny and bitterness. Its use of stream of consciousness, reminiscence and shifting perspectives, gives the novel an intimate, poetic essence, and at the time of publication in 1927 it represented an utter rejection of Victorian and Edwardian literary values.
Virginia Woolf saw the novel as an elegy to her own parents, and in her diary she wrote: ‘I used to think of him (father) and mother daily; but writing The Lighthouse laid them in my mind”.

I loved this novel – it did take me a  while to get use to the style, but I enjoyed the different stream of consciousness. It was more about what people were thinking and feeling than the plot. It was also a nice look at a time in the past.

Here is Margaret Atwood writing about To the Lighthouse

And this one from the NY Times

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A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet – Becky Chambers

A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet – Becky Chambers

Mercy from Mercy’s Bookish Musings reviewed the second in this series and mentioned how much she liked the first one (this one) and she said it was like Firefly one of my favourite shows, so of course I had to buy it. And then the owner of my local book store raved about it.

Here is the blurb …

Follow a motley crew on an exciting journey through space—and one adventurous young explorer who discovers the meaning of family in the far reaches of the universe—in this light-hearted debut space opera from a rising sci-fi star.

Rosemary Harper doesn’t expect much when she joins the crew of the aging Wayfarer. While the patched-up ship has seen better days, it offers her a bed, a chance to explore the far-off corners of the galaxy, and most importantly, some distance from her past. An introspective young woman who learned early to keep to herself, she’s never met anyone remotely like the ship’s diverse crew, including Sissix, the exotic reptilian pilot, chatty engineers Kizzy and Jenks who keep the ship running, and Ashby, their noble captain.

Life aboard the Wayfarer is chaotic and crazy—exactly what Rosemary wants. It’s also about to get extremely dangerous when the crew is offered the job of a lifetime. Tunneling wormholes through space to a distant planet is definitely lucrative and will keep them comfortable for years. But risking her life wasn’t part of the plan. In the far reaches of deep space, the tiny Wayfarer crew will confront a host of unexpected mishaps and thrilling adventures that force them to depend on each other. To survive, Rosemary’s got to learn how to rely on this assortment of oddballs—an experience that teaches her about love and trust, and that having a family isn’t necessarily the worst thing in the universe.

I found it a bit slow going at first – all of that creating a world, explaining the physics etc., but then I was hooked – couldn’t put it down. It is witty and exciting and has something to say about relationships and family (and the families we create for ourselves).

I have bought the second, but have some prescribed reading to get to first Pachinko and Gigi (for my book clubs).

More reviews …

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jul/31/science-fiction-roundup

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

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Less – Andrew Sean Greer

Less – Andrew Sean Greer

I had to read this – my friend knows the author! I even bought a paper version as another friend tells me the author is paid more for paper copies – why? I don’t know.

Here is the blurb …

You are a failed novelist about to turn fifty. A wedding invitation arrives in the mail: your boyfriend of the past nine years is engaged to someone else. You can’t say yes–it would be too awkward–and you can’t say no–it would look like defeat. On your desk are a series of invitations to half-baked literary events around the world.

QUESTION: How do you arrange to skip town?

ANSWER: You accept them all.

What would possibly go wrong? Arthur Less will almost fall in love in Paris, almost fall to his death in Berlin, barely escape to a Moroccan ski chalet from a Saharan sandstorm, accidentally book himself as the (only) writer-in-residence at a Christian Retreat Center in Southern India, and encounter, on a desert island in the Arabian Sea, the last person on Earth he wants to face. Somewhere in there: he will turn fifty. Through it all, there is his first love. And there is his last.

Because, despite all these mishaps, missteps, misunderstandings and mistakes, LESS is, above all, a love story.

A scintillating satire of the American abroad, a rumination on time and the human heart, a bittersweet romance of chances lost, by an author The New York Times has hailed as “inspired, lyrical,” “elegiac,” “ingenious,” as well as “too sappy by half,” LESS shows a writer at the peak of his talents raising the curtain on our shared human comedy.

I loved this book – finally something that is ‘literary’, but not grim. It was witty and clever (probably too clever for me, but I did notice things like…

[In the Paris section]

Less is left breathless below and old house all covered in vines. A group of school girls passes in two straight lines

This is my favourite book so far this year.

Another review

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/jun/01/less-andrew-sean-greer-review

 

 

 

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Bel Ami – Guy de Maupassant

Bel Ami – Guy de Maupassant

This is my third in my classic french literature reading – I have read Dangerous Liaisons and Madame Bovary. Once again, I was surprised by its modern feel.

Here is the blurb …

Guy de Maupassant’s scandalous tale of an opportunistic young man corrupted by the allure of power, “Bel-Ami” is translated with an introduction by Douglas Parmee in “Penguin Classics”. Young, attractive and very ambitious, George Duroy, known to his admirers as Bel-Ami, is offered a job as a journalist on La Vie francaise and soon makes a great success of his new career. But he also comes face to face with the realities of the corrupt society in which he lives – the sleazy colleagues, the manipulative mistresses and wily financiers – and swiftly learns to become an arch-seducer, blackmailer and social climber in a world where love is only a means to an end. Written when Maupassant was at the height of his powers, “Bel-Ami” is a novel of great frankness and cynicism, but it is also infused with the sheer joy of life – depicting the scenes and characters of Paris in the belle epoque with wit, sensitivity and humanity. Douglas Parmee’s translation captures all the vigour and vitality of Maupassant’s novel. His introduction explores the similarities between Bel-Ami and Maupassant himself and demonstrates the skill with which the author depicts his large cast of characters and the French society of the Third Republic.

This is an interesting novel as the main character – Georges Duroy – is vile; selfish and self-centred, he uses others (but mostly women) to improve his social and financial position. This is interesting as it is unusual (at that time – first published in 1885) to have such an unsympathetic character at the heart of a novel (the hero so to speak). What does de Maupassant mean bu it? At this time most novels (English at least) had a didactic purpose – to make us (the readers) better people. Is he showing us the world as it is (or was)?

This novel also highlights how linked (and therefore biased) journalism and politics were – and the manipulation of policy to enrich a few men.

One aspect of this novel that I love is the contemporary social detail – the metro is being built, France has soldiers in Algeria, etc.

If you are interested in 19th century France (or Paris), then I highly recommend this novel. It’s gritty (and a bit grubby) and shows are darker side of life.

Here is another review …

http://insidebooks.blogspot.com/2010/03/book-review-bel-ami-guy-de-maupassant.html

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The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock – Imogen Hermes Gowar

 

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock – Imogen Hermes Gowar

As this is a beautiful book, I had to by a paper copy (full price $32.95, so clearly I liked the cover). I selected this for my book club because, for a while, it seemed to be recommended everywhere (and it was shortlisted for the Women’s prize for fiction).

Here is the blurb …

This voyage is special. It will change everything…

One September evening in 1785, the merchant Jonah Hancock hears urgent knocking on his front door. One of his captains is waiting eagerly on the step. He has sold Jonah’s ship for what appears to be a mermaid.

As gossip spreads through the docks, coffee shops, parlours and brothels, everyone wants to see Mr Hancock’s marvel. Its arrival spins him out of his ordinary existence and through the doors of high society. At an opulent party, he makes the acquaintance of Angelica Neal, the most desirable woman he has ever laid eyes on… and a courtesan of great accomplishment. This chance meeting will steer both their lives onto a dangerous new course, a journey on which they will learn that priceless things come at the greatest cost…

What will be the cost of their ambitions? And will they be able to escape the destructive power mermaids are said to possess?

In this spell-binding story of curiosity and obsession, Imogen Hermes Gowar has created an unforgettable jewel of a novel, filled to the brim with intelligence, heart and wit.

I found the experience of reading this novel to be disconcerting – individual scenes and sentences were brilliant, but the whole novel was somewhat disappointing. I can’t quite put my finger on why the novel wasn’t amazing given that the individual parts were. I loved the setting – it was beautifully described (and clearly well-researched), the characters were nuanced and interesting – I think it was the plot (not that I need much of a plot). It needed tighter editing and some of the characters (and their stories) removed.

However, I enjoyed it, but my expectations were high and it didn’t quite reach them.

More reviews …

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