Anyone with small children (and older ones too, I'm sure) will be familiar with Julia Donaldson, in particular The Gruffalo and The Gruffalo's Child,Anyone with small children (and older ones too, I'm sure) will be familiar with Julia Donaldson, in particular The Gruffalo and The Gruffalo's Child, which - along with Room on the Broom - have been made into animated films that regularly show on the ABC. My son, at three, enjoys the books but finds the movies too scary - he's still young like that.
Room on the Broom is about a witch with "long ginger hair in a braid down her back" and a cat and a broomstick and cauldron. They're flying through the sky, having a peaceful, calm trip, when the wind snatches off her hat. A dog helps her collect it and in return she offers him a ride. Next she loses the bow from her hair, and a green bird brings it back. It, too, gets "room on the broom". And so on, until the broomstick is heavy and snaps in two. They all fall to the ground, and the witch encounters a big, red, terrifying dragon who wants to eat her. Her new friends save her, she makes a spell for a new broomstick, and off they go again - in style and comfort this time.
I love it when picture book authors work closely with the same illustrator for their books - like Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake, or Mem Fox and Julie Vivas; you start to instantly recognise their books based on the style of drawings, and come to associate the drawings with the author. (From a marketing perspective, it's a perfect way to make an instant connection with buyers as they scan the shelves.) There's also a comfort aspect at play - the same can be said of authors like Alison Lester, who do their own illustrations and also have a distinctive style. Such books tend to stick with you longer.
Room on the Broom has a delightful rhyme that almost sounds like song, or music - any picture book that rhymes like this is a pleasure to read out loud. The story just flows so well, it's fun to read, and pleasurable to the ear. Doesn't stop a kid from interrupting, though!
Over the fields and the forests they flew. The dog wagged his tail and the stormy wind blew. The witch laughed out loud and held on to her hat, But away blew the bow from her braid - just like that!
Julia Donaldson is another children's author I find myself gravitating towards whenever I'm looking for a new picture book - between her, Alison Lester, Mem Fox, Oliver Jeffers and a few others, you're never short of titles to consider! ...more
After more than two decades of marriage, Douglas Petersen's wife Connie suddenly wakes him in the night to tell him that she thinks she wants to leaveAfter more than two decades of marriage, Douglas Petersen's wife Connie suddenly wakes him in the night to tell him that she thinks she wants to leave him, that their marriage has 'run its course'.
Fifty-four year old Douglas is stunned and resistant. Connie is the love of his life, the only woman he's ever had a serious relationship with, and the mother of his two children: Jane, who died just days after she was born, and Albie, a moody youth about to transition to university. Douglas is a scientist, Connie an artist, and Albie takes after his mother.
Despite Connie's announcement, she is still determined that the family take their planned trip around Europe to tour art galleries and take in foreign places. Douglas sees it as his chance to change Connie's mind, but the trip is fraught with tension, and Douglas's inability to get along with his son is the cause of the disintegration of his carefully detailed itinerary.
Now, instead of going back to England with Connie, Douglas is determined to find Albie and bring him home - thinking that this will be a heroic act in Connie's eyes. That if he can return her son safely to her, she won't leave him. But the search for Albie in Europe tests Douglas in other ways, and away from Connie and all that is familiar to him, he has a chance to break out of his own tightly-controlled parameters and behave in ways that surprise him.
But is it enough to save his marriage? Can he rescue his fraught relationship with his son, a boy who has always managed to provoke irritation and disappointment in him? Us is a story of one middle-aged man's quest to preserve something that, perhaps, shouldn't be saved. A transformative journey not only across Europe, but through the past and his memories, the pieces of which come together to make Douglas Petersen a wholly real and sympathetic - if not entirely likeable - man facing a major upheaval in his life.
In the beginning, I loved this book. I loved the conversational style Douglas has in telling his story directly to the reader, his frank reflections and realistic flaws. This is very much a book about human nature, human foibles, the inconsistencies and contradictions inherent in being human, the ways in which life plays out and our best intentions don't always work out how you planned. It's a story about personalities, and making room for other people's characters, adapting and compromising, to make not just a marriage but a family work.
The trouble was that, after a while, I found the story and the style almost stifling, claustrophobic. Perhaps those are overly dramatic words, perhaps what I really mean is it was a bit repetitive in terms of style and voice, that Douglas's voice was too authentic and that I have, maybe, more in common with Connie and less patience for Douglas. I love getting inside a character so different from myself, but every story contains different elements - voice, style, plot etc. - that, together, either work for you or don't. It becomes wholly subjective, an emotional response to a person that you can no more consciously influence when reading about that person than you can, meeting them in the flesh.
Us is strongly realistic, almost painfully so. The non-linear structure is easy to follow - Douglas guides the whole way, which is very in keeping with his character (he loves itineraries and maps) - and helps break it up, as well as enable the full picture to come together slowly and with a solidity that comes from the use of small details, little snapshots. There's a quote from John Updike's Rabbit is Rich at the very beginning that fits this book perfectly:
He finds a hundred memories, some vivid as photographs and meaningless, snapped by the mind for reasons of its own, and others mere facts, things he knows are true but has no snapshot for.
As a description of the style and structure of this book as well as the way Douglas walks you through his memories and his life, this is very apt. The characters are recognisable - and often unpleasant - in all their flaws and quirks, and the scenarios feel familiar whether you've experienced them or not. There's skill in that, from Nicholls, that shouldn't be dismissed.
But essentially this is the story of a marriage in the process of dissolving, and the interesting thing was how you, the reader, feel about that. Do you want them to stay together? The stories and memories that Douglas chooses to share have a noticeable influence on that, until the last third of the book when you start to finally break away of Douglas's mindset and you have enough information to consider things for yourself. Perhaps the ending is a surprise. Perhaps it is a disappointment, yet really it is the only way it could have ended, in hindsight. But it is very sad. It made me think of how I - who have much in common with Douglas, really, being an introvert who dislikes 'partying' and finds socialising exhausting - could never be in a relationship with an extrovert like Connie. There have been times when, snuggling on the couch with my husband of a Friday or Saturday evening, we've remarked out loud how nice it is that our wishes are in harmony, not conflict. Yes that sounds a bit smug, but really it's just comfortable. The pattern of Connie and Douglas's relationship makes sense, the way it plays out and the hurdles they had to overcome, but at the end of the day Douglas won: it was Connie who had to change. It was Connie who gave up aspects of her life. That's never a great recipe for a long-term relationship.
Yet life is rarely neat and simple, and if it is, it might not feel like living. What this story really shows is how complicated every individual relationship is, that you can't apply one system of rules or expectations to every relationship, every marriage. That what works for some doesn't necessarily work for others. And that not every marriage should survive. That maybe it's better that it doesn't. I like to think I'm not the judging type, but we all try to make the world less chaotic, more familiar and understandable, by using our own frame of reference - our own perspective - to make sense of the world and the people in it, so everyone judges in that sense. This is one of the things I love about fiction: the chance to hear a voice different from our own, a different perspective, other people's choices, and not just get irritated that they didn't do things the way we would have done them, but to consider their choices in light of their own context, their own life and character. In that sense, fiction has great potential. I may not have enjoyed Us as much as it seemed I would at the beginning, but it still made an impression and reminded me of some of the qualities of storytelling that I really value.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via TLC Book Tours....more
Amira, Caro, Fiona and Morag are old friends who met when their children began kindergarten together. Now Tess, Janey and Bronte (and Morag's twin boyAmira, Caro, Fiona and Morag are old friends who met when their children began kindergarten together. Now Tess, Janey and Bronte (and Morag's twin boys) are fourteen and the four women see much less of each other. Amira, a teacher and single mother, has taken Tess with her on a year-long teaching exchange in Kalangalla, a remote Indigenous community outside Broome, Western Australia. With only a few months left and a big decision to make, Amira invites her old friends - and Tess's old friends, Bronte and Janey - to stay with them for a few weeks. What should be a relaxing and enjoyable holiday is strained by the changed personalities of the girls as they enter womanhood, and the pressures and stresses of approaching middle age for their mothers. When Morag's sixteen-year-old stepdaughter Macy joins them, having been suspended from school, the dynamic changes yet again and tensions come to a head.
Delving into the heart of mother-daughter relationships and the fraught friendships between adolescent girls, Mothers and Daughters also touches upon some of the issues faced by our Aboriginal population and the inherent racism in the country, as well as bullying, envy, growing up and figuring out what you really want in life. Ladd writes with intelligence and wit, and the novel resonates with warmth, humour and realism.
From the opening scene at the airport in Melbourne, at the opposite end of the country, the friction as well as the love between the characters is apparent. Fiona is acerbic and sharp, witty but tired, with a husband who doesn't seem to respect her - or any women - and an older son who is following suit. She drinks a lot and is loud with her opinions. Fiona captures the views of mainstream white Australia towards the Aborigines, and doesn't care who overhears. Her daughter, Bronte, has had a growth spurt and feels ungainly and enormous. When a modelling agency scout approached her, Fiona scoffed at the idea that her daughter could be a model. Bronte hasn't started her period yet and is shy; she lets her mother browbeat and criticise her and she hasn't yet learned to stand up for herself. For a long time she was friends with Janey and Tess, though on the outside, but Janey has moved to a private school and Tess left for remote WA, leaving Bronte struggling to fill the gaps.
Janey is a self-absorbed, unlikeable girl who loves her own body and spends her time glued to her mobile phone - when she's not swimming. Her mother, Caro, has put in hours of her own time, driving Janey to practice and meets - and driving Janey to be the best. Yet it always feels like her two girls love their Italian father more, who travels so much and comes home with presents, leaving Caro to do most of the active parenting. Or maybe it's that she's jealous of how much he loves them. Caro is a bit obsessed with appearance, and looking neat and attractive, and has led a largely protected life.
Morag, an aged-care nurse, left Scotland for Australia in order to be with Andrew, a man she'd met and fallen in love with while young, but who went on to marry someone else and have a daughter. He later divorced and tracked Morag down, and they had twin boys, Callum and Finn, and later a third boy, Torran. Morag left behind her ageing mother in Edinburgh, who she visits infrequently, and after years of living in Australia, it finally catches up with her:
She wasn't hungover, Morag suddenly realised. She was homesick. For years she'd lived quite happily in Australia. She'd made her peace with it, she thought - this was where her husband was, her children, her future. Coming north, though, had shifted something. Broome and Kalangalla were so different, so foreign to her, that they magnified the strangeness of this continent, made it all seem new again. New and overwhelming and completely alien. Her mind went back to a home visit she'd done one winter's day over a decade earlier - Newhaven, she thought, or maybe North Leith. There was a hostel next door to the flat she was visiting. It was snowing, and a black-skinned family - refugees, she'd guessed, asylum seekers from North Africa - were standing in the garden with their pink-palmed hands out, catching the dirty flakes, a look of total bewilderment on each of their faces. That was her, she thought. That was how she was feeling right now. [pp.249-250]
Unlike the other three women, Amira is less urban, more open-minded and adaptable. She and her daughter, Tess, fit in well among the Aborigines at Kalangalla, a community free of alcohol that has kept up the more traditional lifestyle of the local tribe. Tess runs around barefoot with her new best friend, an Aboriginal girl called Tia. Amira is reluctant to leave for the city again after her year is up, but it's not a decision she'll make without Tess. Tess has started exchanging romantic correspondence with Callum, Morag's son, but when Janey finds the letter Tess learns just how mean Janey can be, and how different their paths now are.
As you come to know the women and their girls, you definitely come to care for them, too. Ladd has captured four women representative of our mainstream, middle-class, white society, and four girls similarly representative. They feel and sound like real people, as do the Aboriginal characters they meet and interact with. As much as I found the novel entertaining, well-written and absorbing, it also felt just a bit contrived. It is far too easy to conjure up a similar scenario of four women with representative personalities (though much less realistic): Sex and the City. Caro was definitely reminiscent of Charlotte, for instance. And the girls, too, were fairly standard characters. While it did work, it also required me to put aside certain niggles like this, when I'd rather not have them in the first place. Fiona and Morag were perhaps the best characters in the sense that they felt quite natural and normal (even if you don't agree with Fiona's opinions - and I rather hope you don't - she's still a natural, identifiable character, whereas Caro seemed like a caricature to me). The issue isn't with realism, it's with putting a bit to much into the one book. Trying to capture too many perspectives. Trying to connect with all readers and their varied personalities. It didn't need to be quite so representative in order to work. You can still have conflict when the characters are less dissimilar.
But time, and how things change with it, how our relationships - all kinds - can fall fallow or fade, and how nostalgic we can be for the past is at the forefront of this novel, and how the characters interact. Societal issues and pressures form the details that create conflict or force people to face up to things, but at heart this is a story about four women hitting middle-age and not quite handling it all that well, and their daughters who are hitting puberty, wanting to exert their independence and embark on the start of their own lives - something that is often in conflict with their parents' wishes, which stem largely from nostalgia.
Despite the niggling feeling that Mothers and Daughters was trying to capture too much, I loved this book. I especially loved the inclusion of issues surrounding Indigenous populations here in Australia, as well as the classic urban-rural divide. Most of the characters are sympathetic and likeable (the exception is Janey), and their time in the remote Aboriginal community of Kalangalla provides a wonderful backdrop to the playing-out of their relationships. This is a story of contemporary life for Australian women of this demographic, warts and all. It's about what it means to grow up - how we must go through a "coming of age" process more than once, and how we transition from impatience in adolescence, to resistance in our forties. A heartening and, at times, heart-breaking tale of love, friendship and resilience, Mothers and Daughters is a wonderful story....more
It's been many years since Assassin's Apprentice came out in 1995. Where was I in 1995? Finishing high school - grade 10 - and slowly starting to reaIt's been many years since Assassin's Apprentice came out in 1995. Where was I in 1995? Finishing high school - grade 10 - and slowly starting to realise that Fantasy was the genre I loved. I read Assassin's Apprentice a year or two later, in college, and wanted so badly to love it. It had one of the new breed of Fantasy covers (click the link above to see it), and the genre, in the late 90s, was experiencing a true revival: fresh talent, new energy, original ideas and some beautiful covers by Voyager here in Australia (so different from those commonly associated with Fantasy thanks to publishers like Tor in the U.S. with their ugly, chunky fonts and often awkward-looking artwork).
But I digress. I wanted to love the first book set in the world of the Farseers - Hobb's first novel, if I remember correctly - but I couldn't. It wasn't long, but it was slow and uninteresting to me at the time; I couldn't get into it. I did give Hobb another go a few years later, when I was at uni and read The Liveship Traders. The first book took me a long time to get through, but it picked up at the end and the last two books were quite exciting. So it was with a mixture of excitement and trepidation that I received her newest, Fool's Assassin, in the mail. Not only was I leery of being able to enjoy Hobb's slower, more ponderous style (for such as it was from memory), but this is the start of a third trilogy set in the same world as her very first book, and the fact that I hadn't read the intervening books was a big looming ignorance which I feared would preclude any enjoyment at all.
Not so, on the last count at least.
The story reintroduces readers to FitzChivalry Farseer, bastard son of King Shrewd's oldest son, Chivalry, who abdicated the throne in favour of his younger brother, Verity. Fitz, son of a Mountain Kingdom woman, is the protagonist and hero of the previous trilogies, which see him being brought to Buckkeep Castle and trained as a spy and assassin - for the Farseer kings, if a bastard isn't useful to the throne, he's a threat. It is as a boy at the castle that Fitz first meets the Fool, a blonde boy in a land of dark-haired people who later, in the Tawny Man trilogy, figures prominently as a White Prophet, Fitz his Catalyst.
But Fitz has retired, as much as he's allowed to, and now lives incognito at Withywoods with his wife, Molly, and some of her children from her first marriage (to Burrich). Known as Holder Tom Badgerlock, Fitz is enjoying his quiet life, his wife, and being away from court politics. But on the night of Winterfest, three strangers appear at the manor house, a pale messenger he never gets to meet vanishes, and there's blood in his study - both the ground floor study where the messenger was waiting for him and his own, private study where Fitz does his real work. As angry as he is at the violation and the mystery, the trail soon goes cold, years pass and he forgets all about it. Until another pale messenger arrives, barely alive, with a message from the Fool that doesn't make sense, for all that its importance is clear. And just like that, Fitz is launched back into the world of intrigue, danger, adventure and death.
Fool's Assassin begins slowly, almost too slowly. It took me a while to get through the first few chapters, which seemed far too preoccupied in the minute details of Withywoods and Winterfest. Yet it does set the tone and pace for the novel to come, as well as ease you back into this world. And even though I can barely remember anything from Assassin's Apprentice, Hobb's gentle handling of exposition (including background information) meant that I never got lost. I'm not sure if readers who are more familiar with the earlier trilogies would appreciate the recapping and reminiscing as much as I did; it's hard to say. But all the details of who died, who was tortured, what happened to so-and-so from the previous books, didn't feel like spoilers to me; such details have actually motivated me to read the previous trilogies and catch up. In such a condensed form, the excitement and thrill of previous plots is forefront.
Fitz is technically an old man in this book: at the start he is forty-seven, and Molly, at fifty, is three years older. Twelve or thirteen years go by during the course of this book, but because of the intense Skill healing Fitz endured as a younger man, his body keeps healing and he looks younger than his true years. He'll need that boost of youth and vigour, as the end of this first volume is merely the beginning of a very personal adventure for Fitz. I would love very much to give some details, especially as the messenger plot-line I shared in the summary above is just one sliver of what happens in this, but I really don't want to spoil it for anyone. What I will say is that I loved Bee, she's a truly engaging heroine and fascinating too. It's interesting that Fitz doesn't realise a few things about her, especially considering I figured it out and I haven't even read the other books! Because of Bee, the slower pace and fine details of daily life became welcome, soothing almost, and intrinsic to the development of characters and plot. Sure it could have been slimmed down, but I wouldn't change anything: for all the pace, I found it exciting, gripping and immensely enjoyable.
It's also quite heartbreaking. There were several places in the story that set me crying, which I love: I love being that involved, that invested in the characters, that what happens to them affects me enough that I cry. Sure, I cry easily these days, but you still need that connection. One thing's for sure, Hobbs characters are alive, they're real, and the deceptive simplicity of the writing and plot draws you in in an organic, homely way. It fits well. It also makes you realise, in terms of the overall plot of the trilogy - which doesn't become clear until the very end of book 1 - how necessary it is to spend such a long time on establishing the characters, especially Bee. (And as a warning: this book ends on a cliffhanger.)
As for the world itself, Hobb builds on her previous work and as far as I can tell, nothing new has been added here. It's well established, but reminded me of one of the reasons why I struggled with the first book as a teenager: it's not the most interesting world. Following on the well-trodden path of modelling a fantasy world on medieval Europe, perhaps the most striking difference is the lack of religion. There's no religion in this world at all, at least not in the Six Duchies. There's magic and mystery, the supernatural, the long-gone Elderlings and newly-arisen dragons, but no religion. It's a surprising omission, once you note it, only because in our own world, religion is always there, even if you don't follow one or have personal beliefs. It still frames your world, shapes your experiences and your perspective. Without religion, the characters here need some kind of creed to follow, some shared understanding of how the world works and their place in it. Loyalty comes to mind, and the Farseer kings. They're not worshipped, but the lengths characters like Chade, Fitz's mentor, go to to protect the throne are almost worshipper-like.
Fool's Assassin is a successful re-entry into Fitz's world, I would say, and provides the pivotal beginnings to a new high-stakes plot. Even without having read the previous trilogies, I would say that this plot is the most personal for Fitz, I just can't say why without spoiling things. Am I eagerly awaiting the second book already? Absolutely! The best thing to do in the meantime, is go back to the beginning and read the Farseer Trilogy and the Tawny Man trilogy (I would love to read the Soldier Son trilogy too, while I'm at it). Hobb has reinvigorated my interest in this world, which I didn't think would happen, but considering how slow the pacing is here, how uneventful so much of this long book seems to be, that says a lot about her skill in developing characters, anticipation and momentum.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book. ...more
The question of whether you read Someone Else's Love Story as a story about faith and destiny, or coincidence and growing up, is a redundant one: it iThe question of whether you read Someone Else's Love Story as a story about faith and destiny, or coincidence and growing up, is a redundant one: it is not the answer that matters, but the fact that there is a question at all. For Shandi Pierce, she has spent the last four years in denial, so fiercely omitting the truth of the night she got pregnant that she's convinced herself she had a virgin birth. The illusion comes crashing down on the day she moves from her mother's mountain home to Atlanta, where her father lives, to continue her degree closer to campus. En route with her best friend, Walcott, and her three year old son, Natty, they pull over at a little petrol station because Natty is car sick. Going inside to get a drink, Shandi spies a handsome older man, who she pins as being divorced. Her parents divorced when she was very young due to arguments about how to raise their daughter (her mother is Catholic, her father is Jewish), and Shandi has had a few boyfriends since Natty was born who are all much older men.
The suspected divorcee is William Ashe, and he isn't divorced. He is in mourning, though, so when a drug-addled man enters the Circle K with an old gun and proceeds to rob the place, William sees it as destiny. Here is a way to end it all. Shandi reads William's reaction differently: she sees the way he moves between the gunman and her son, and thinks he is deeply protective - the quality all women want in their male partners when children are involved. She's sexually attracted to him, and being in a hostage situation, adrenalin pumping, only seems to heighten it. When William says "Destiny," she thinks he means them. She falls in love.
But William is deep in his own love story, the love he has - or had - for his wife, Bridget, and their two year old daughter, Twyla, who died in a tragic car accident exactly one year to the day of the robbery. William is autistic, though as his best friend Paula points out, he "learned how to pass." A genetic scientist, he's built like a football player and makes origami animals to keep his fingers busy while he thinks. When Shandi turns up at the hospital after the robbery, Natty in tow, she asks for his help in finding the boy's real father. Things changed for both of them that day at the Circle K; for Shandi, she killed a miracle. Now she has to find the truth, and hopes to find love along the way.
Someone Else's Love Story is a snappy, intelligent, engaging read, fast-paced enough to swing you along with it as it explores the characters' neuroses and conflicted states of being. For "conflicted" they are, and if it weren't for Shandi's slightly sarcastic, slightly ironic observations, it would slip into melodrama. The other thing that saves it from self-indulgence (that quality I can't stand) is Jackson's ability to see and explore the ways in which faith works for us as individuals, without ever coming across as having picked a side. William is, frankly, incapable of believing in God or anything else, and so the character presents a balance in that way. Shandi is seemingly neutral, or undecided, while Bridget was in training to be a nun. It's the push-and-pull between faith and everything (and everyone) else that matters, the way the characters work their way to an understanding that allows them to love and be loved. It's not just the concept of "religious faith" that the book deals with: more prominently, it explores the idea of faith in a non-religious context, too. Faith as in trust and understanding.
One of the things I liked about this book was its blend of cliché and originality. There are the characters: slightly-unlikeable yet oddly-likeable heroine, Shandi, caustic Paula and too-good-to-be-true Bridget, and distant, hard-to-reach but honourable William, plus gangly bean-pole Walcott who is so clearly in love with Shandi before either of them realise it (not to mention he's already pretty much Natty's father), and Shandi's Hollywood-esque rich dad and evil stepmother, Bethany. William does, of course, bring to mind Don Tillman from Graeme Simsion's highly entertaining 2013 novel, The Rosie Project; Don has Asperger's (though doesn't believe he does) and is a geneticist who helps a younger, attractive woman (Rosie) find her father via DNA sampling. In Rosie, there is romance between the two; in Love Story, there is Shandi's desperate attempts at romance that largely go unnoticed.
This isn't a story of new love, but of new beginnings to old stories. Often, they are other people's love stories, and Shandi has stumbled into them rather blindly. This includes her own parents and the truth of their unhappy marriage, which provides such an important lesson for their daughter. At its hearts, it's a story about being a parent, and the love parents have for their children - and what they sacrifice, or destroy, when love becomes a weapon. Jackson strikes true on many fronts, and what held me back from loving it is purely a subjective, personality thing. That magical relationship between reader and writer via the prose style, which no one can control. That magic relationship wasn't quite there for me with this book, though it's a successful story in so many ways. It also didn't help that I find the cover off-putting: too pinky-purple, too ugly-pretty with its loud, obvious daisy, too trite and commercial. I don't even like to look at it, but I hope it doesn't put anyone else off from reading this.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via TLC Book Tours....more
I hope everyone recognises this book. I had forgotten all about this series until I saw it in Dymocks back in July and was immediately transported bacI hope everyone recognises this book. I had forgotten all about this series until I saw it in Dymocks back in July and was immediately transported back in time to my childhood. I LOVED these books, they were big when I was in, what, prep? Grade 1?
Originally published in 1972, this is the first book and I decided it was a good place to start - I've since added Mog's Missing, Meg's Eggs and a three-in-one volume that includes Mog at the Zoo, Meg's Veg and Meg Up the Creek. They are bold and distinctive and I'm so, so happy they're still in print! Here is the first page, or half of it as they're all double-page spreads that don't fit in my scanner:
Meg, a witch whose spells often backfire in interesting ways, lives with her cat, Mog, and Owl. They creatures of habit and routine who enjoy their breakfasts. Meg has four witch friends: Jess, Bess, Tess and Cress. She has a broomstick and a cauldron and her spells are very ... inventive.
The pages are solid blocks of colour, primary colours mostly, and the text has a distinctive lack of punctuation that you just have to go along with. Dialogue is in the form of speech bubbles, so when you're reading out loud you have to ad lib a bit. There's always a lot to point at in the illustrations and plenty of comments, conjectures and opinions to share as you read it, because the stories imply much but leave a lot of it unsaid. My son loves these books and with their big, bold and unstructured text, it makes for a good book for kids learning to read. Helen Nicoll died a number of years ago but I believe Jan Pieńkowski, who illustrated the books, is still alive. There are 16 books in the series (that I know of, anyway) and each one is similar - and familiar - in terms of style and storyline, yet also distinctively different.
Having the chance to relive the fun of these books through reading them to my three-year-old is an absolute joy. There's something wonderful about sharing a story you loved as a child, with your own child, and watching them enjoy it just as much....more
If you're looking for a fun and sometimes surprising chick-lit romance full of food references (and recipes), you might want to pick up a copy of HowIf you're looking for a fun and sometimes surprising chick-lit romance full of food references (and recipes), you might want to pick up a copy of How to Bake a Man. While there are some more serious themes at play here - the young, working generation's struggle to find meaningful, satisfying work and a purpose in life; difficult people in the workplace; overcoming fear and taking risks - at its heart this story is a celebration of comfort food and love.
Becca Muchmore is twenty-seven, single, and trying to do something with her life by spending her savings on an MBA. Only, her first day back at uni is a humiliating experience for her, and she feels so out-of-place that she's ready to pack it in, go home and bake cookies. As her best friend Dez says, "But what are you going to do? You're in school and hate it. You quite your job that took forever to find. You can't make cookies your entire life." Yet that's exactly what Becca decides to do, despite her friend's wise words, despite her mother's theatrical sighs and criticisms. Within the space of just twenty-four hours, she's done the paperwork for the permits and licenses she'll need, and followed a connection from Dez's husband and secured a trial deal, selling baked goods to the staff at a law firm in a San Francisco skyscraper. Now she needs to bake, and bake some more.
Luckily, she has help: one of her neighbours and the de facto superintendent of her apartment building, Salvatore Souza, puts his arm muscles to work, mixing the tough dough for honey nuts. A man of many part-time trades, Sal is liberal with advice on women and love - of which he has plenty of experience - and lets Becca know that he's available to help her with her new business, should she need it. As Becca launches her new business, Becca's Best, at Winston, Janszen and LeGuin, she realises the job comes with an unexpected - and unpleasant - surprise: one of the lawyers, Jennifer Regan, is her doppelgänger. The resemblance between Becca and Jennifer would be nothing but a funny story if it weren't for the fact that Jennifer is the office cow, a deeply angry, mean-spirited and foul-mouthed woman with a sharp tongue and no interpersonal skills. She also happens to have a wonderful, handsome, genuinely nice boyfriend, a lawyer from another firm called Jeff, who Becca feels herself falling for, fast.
Over the next few days, Becca finds herself becoming increasingly obsessed with the resemblance she shares with Jennifer, how someone like Jeff could be with her, and what's going on between Jennifer and another of the firm's lawyers, Brad. While she bakes by night and tries to figure things out by day, the one thing Becca can't see is the truth in front of her: that there's a loyal, resourceful and uncomplicated man who's perfect for her, working alongside her, waiting for her to figure things out.
There is much to enjoy about How to Bake a Man. First of all, I find it hard to go past a book that so prominently features cooking, especially baking - I don't seek them out, but when they come my way they score (consider Baking Cakes in Kigali, Sweet Nothings and Sugar Spun Sister as good examples). Secondly, romance and baking just go so well together, don't they? (And in Baking Cakes in Kigali, cakes and detectives!) But this is also a coming-of-age story for Becca, as she figures out what she wants to do and goes for it. That's not easy to do, especially when you have confidence issues like Becca does.
I will say that Becca's ability to quickly set up her own company and acquire a client did strike me as a bit too easy, a bit quick and convenient. She started small-scale, it's true, but the focus of the story was on her emotional hang-ups, her would-be romance with clean-cut, preppy Jeff, and her obsession with Jennifer. The baking was a way in to that, albeit a consistently relevant one. Things just seemed to work out a bit too easily and cleanly for her, she didn't experience the blows and set-backs of most small businesses. I'm also unconvinced that anyone would readily buy baked goods twice a day, every day (just as I have no idea how she could cook that much in a day - making more than one recipe in a day is exhausting in my experience!). I'm not sure that her business, as structured, would actually work the way it's described here. You have to suspend disbelief and focus on the same things Becca's focussed on: namely, Jeff and Jennifer.
The physical likeness between Becca and Jennifer - which some people see immediately and others pick up on more slowly - was an interesting plot tactic, not something I'd read before, and used as justification for Becca's personal interest in Jennifer's life. Not sure I'm entirely convinced, but it makes for fun reading (there is some stalking involved). Really, the star of this story - the one character you can't help but love and appreciate from the beginning - is of course Sal (with, surprisingly, Becca's mother in second place). Unlike stories like Bridget Jones's Diary, the real love interest is portrayed as a good guy from the beginning. The only strikes against him, from Becca's perspective, are that he's a womaniser (which is just an impression she's picked up) and that he doesn't have a "real job" - and when you're white and middle class, that's important. But through helping Becca get her business going, she sees that he's reliable, dependable, loyal, useful, intelligent, friendly, and likeable. Like most people, she judges on appearances, and those are generally always shown to be misleading.
Becca can be frustratingly slow at times, though, especially on picking up Sal's none-too-subtle signals. But she has to go through a cycle of falling for the kind of man your parents would like to see you bring home, to realising it's just an infatuation and getting it out of your system, before you can see the man you really love, who was there all along. It's not original, but it's a classic.
With recipes for all the baked goodies talked about at the back of the book (in American measurements etc. - you'll need to do a bit of translating if you want to cook any of them), the story comes full circle. The commonly-held belief that "the way to a man's heart is through his stomach" is perhaps at the heart of this book, or at least is its structure, but really this is a story about a young woman coming into her own, realising her full potential, going after what she wants and succeeding at it. It's a story about strong women, lonely women, women in love and women in the wrong relationships. The tone is a nice balance of light-hearted and 'let's be serious for a minute here folks', though I found the scene with Jeff on Becca's couch a bit odd and disturbing. Maybe because the whole Jeff thing was so wrong for Becca, and that was the point where she seemed to realise it too - or be on the brink of realising it. Overall, a fun tale and some new recipes to try someday!
Oliver Jeffers writes very grown-up picture books, the kind that kids love and that can make adults cry. Okay, so he can make this adult cry - especiaOliver Jeffers writes very grown-up picture books, the kind that kids love and that can make adults cry. Okay, so he can make this adult cry - especially with The Heart and the Bottle.
It's the story of a little girl, "much like any other, whose head was filled with all the curiosities of the world." Her grandfather takes her to the forest, the beach, and listens to her stories and all her many questions. But then one day his armchair is empty.
She puts her heart in a glass bottle so it can't be hurt, and grows up into a young woman who has no curiosity about the world at all. But her heart is safe. Then one day she encounters a little girl, a girl just like she had been, full of questions about the world.
There was a time when the girl would have known how to answer her.
But not now.
Not without her heart.
She decides to get her heart back, but she doesn't know how, she can't remember. She tries all sorts of things. It is the little girl who has an idea, a way - and this answer will, to adult readers at least, represent a profound metaphor that will really make you appreciate the open curiosity and sense of wonder that children naturally possess - and maybe refrain from quashing it.
This book is sad - and poignant - to me for several reasons, all of them powerful and all of them due to the skill and artistry of Oliver Jeffers. With so few words and such beautiful illustrations he can say so much, about the spirit of childhood, about the love between children and those they look up to, about how precious curiosity and appreciating the world is, and that locking away your heart to keep it safe is no way to live. The book shares the joy of wonderment, the joy of listening to children and taking the time to talk to them, and how important it is to let yourself feel, and live, and love and, yes, hurt too, because that's part of life, and if you don't let yourself hurt you're probably not letting yourself love, either.
That's not to say that children don't get a lot out of this book. The best picture books are ones that both adults and children can enjoy - and Jeffers is one of those contemporary picture book writers who is treasured by both. While the stories about the boy and his penguin are a delight to read, and also beautifully illustrated (as is How to Catch a Star and This Moose is Not For You), there's something utterly beautiful and utterly tragic about The Heart in the Bottle that makes it such a powerful story, full of truisms and life, death and coping after the death of a loved one, about growing up and dealing with loneliness. Children can relate, because they are just like that little girl, and they're going to experience the loss of loved ones, especially - sadly - grandparents, who are so looked up to by children. Jeffers presents a gentle and insightful look at love, grief and being alive. A must for every library....more
Georgie McCool is a television writer, working with her partner, Seth, on a popular sitcom that they both detest. When they successfully pitch a new TGeorgie McCool is a television writer, working with her partner, Seth, on a popular sitcom that they both detest. When they successfully pitch a new TV show to a producer - their own show, that they will have creative control over - they're over the moon, but suddenly they have just nine days to write four episodes before their next meeting. Georgie is beyond excited: it's what she and Seth have been working towards since they first teamed up after uni. But now she has to break the news to her husband, Neal. It's not the possibility of a new show that will upset him, but what the deadline means: missing Christmas with his family in Omaha.
While Georgie's sure they still love each other, a part of her is reluctant to share this news with her husband of fourteen years, because deep down she knows there are cracks in their marriage that could become fissures. With her mobile phone out of action, and the emptiness of their house too much to bear, Georgie stays at her mother's place where she finds her old rotary phone in her childhood bedroom, plugs it in and calls Neal. Only the Neal she talks to at night is not the Neal who packed their two girls, Alice and Noomi, into a taxi for the airport. It's not the same Neal at all: it's the Neal she first fell in love with, nineteen years ago, who almost broke up with her when he went to Omaha for a week but instead came back with an engagement ring.
What is she makes everything worse by talking to this younger Neal? What if she should use this opportunity to free him of a marriage she's almost convinced herself he doesn't want, is in fact smothered by? But what would happen to their two little girls then? What would happen to her? Suddenly these nightly phone calls into the past are all she can think about, as Georgie begins to reassess her life, her ambitions, her priorities and her family.
If I wasn't as in love with Fangirl as I'd have liked, Landline delivered that Rowell magic I so crave. Landline has the sharp, realistic banter of Attachments and the gentle, honest insights of Eleanor & Park (which I read - and still think of - as an adult novel). Plus that magical realism twist, which I wasn't actually expecting, mostly because I got a copy of this as soon as it came out simply because it's a Rainbow Rowell book and I love Rainbow Rowell books; I didn't read the synopsis.
The story is straight-forward, the premise deceptively simple. This isn't a story over-crowded with plot or bereft of character development. It's primarily a character-driven story, in which the heroine - Georgie - gets a second chance at the classic coming-of-age moment. That's what I love about this story: it gets right into the realities of being a parent, a woman with a career, a wife approaching forty with touching and often witty honesty. I also found it to be nicely subtle. When we first meet Neal, we don't know much about him except that he never locks the front door and that there's some weird tension between him and Georgie. Certain early descriptions, of how he isn't usually in a good mood, the messy house and young Alice asleep on the couch - coupled with the unlocked door led me develop an initial picture of him as something of a grumpy flake. Not sure if you can even put those words together, but I was picturing someone who begrudged easily, who was sloppy and unreliable around the house, who was maybe lazy - a stereotype, in other words, that would have been all too easy. The puzzle that is Neal is something that unravels slowly and with care, something that is shown rather than decided early on.
And it matters, it matters a lot, because Georgie is in a position to undo her life, or so it seems. As the reader, you naturally wonder, Is Neal worth it? Is he someone you could love? Should they stay together? You very slowly learn all that Neal has sacrificed for Georgie, all that he's done - and no he's not perfect, he's got edges and flaws too and that makes him all the more human and real and relatable. By the end of the book, I was more than a little bit in love with Neal myself.
Landline has poignancy, nostalgia and humour, especially around Georgie's mother, ridiculously young step-father and half-sister (plus the dogs), not to mention Seth, who first enters the plot as something of a possible love interest or second option for Georgie. But he never feels right, and in fact he reminded me all too vividly of extroverted, charismatic people I've known over the years. Descriptions from Georgie's youth, when she first met Seth and Neal while working on the student paper, are a mix of that classic late 80s/early 90s show, Press Gang, and vague recollections of my own student days (not that I worked on the student paper at uni). With so much dialogue in the story, it reads with a quick pace and lots of energy, making the slower, more whimsical recollections of the past that much more bittersweet.
At its heart, this is a story about that unavoidable shift from adulthood to, well, adulthood - from the fun stuff to the repetitive drudgery, the realities of making a living and supporting a family, the truth that every marriage gets comfortable, and then can become tired and stale or, sadly, broken. It's a story about growing apart as much as growing closer together, about miscommunication and that struggle we so often have between the demands of our families and the demands of our souls to be more fulfilled. As thirty-nine year old Georgie tells young Neal in her head:
You like our house. You picked it out. You said it reminded you of home - something about hills and high ceilings and only one bathroom. And we're close to the ocean - close enough - and you don't hate it, not like you used to. Sometimes I think you like it. You love me by the ocean. And the girls. You say it sweetens us. Pinks our cheeks and curls our hair. And Neal, if you don't come back to me, you'll never see what a good dad you are. And it won't be the same if you have kids with some other, better girl, because they won't be Alice and Noomi, and even if I'm not your perfect match, they are. God, the three of you. The three of you. When I wake up on Sunday mornings - late, you always let me sleep in - I come looking for you, and you're in the backyard with dirt on your knees and two little girls spinning around you in perfect orbit. And you put their hair in pigtails, and you let them wear whatever madness they want, and Alice planted a fruit cocktail tree, and Noomi ate a butterfly, and they look like me because they're round and golden, but they glow for you. And you built us a picnic table. And you learned to bake bread. And you've painted a mural on every west-facing wall. And it isn't all bad, I promise. I swear to you. You might not be actively, thoughtfully happy 70 to 80 percent of the time, but maybe you wouldn't be anyway. And even when you're sad, Neal - even when you're falling asleep at the other side of the bed - I think you're happy, too. About some things. About a few things. I promise it's not all bad.
I wouldn't want to mislead you into thinking this is some sappy, unbearably sweet story about love and finding what's important - it might be about those things, but in a wise, fresh way. At least, I found it to be wise and fresh, perhaps because I don't read too many books that get easily dismissed as 'women's fiction' (there's something inherently patronising in that label, like it's saying: Don't worry about those silly books, men, the real fiction is over here), but really I think it's because Rowell has a real talent for realism, for snappy prose, and for capturing individuals who I can relate to and feel for. There are writers like that for everyone, and when you find one, you hold them close (which is why you want print books over e-books, right, because snuggling an e-reader to your chest in pure glee just isn't the same thing)....more
There is a constant stream of novels written about the Jewish experience during World War II - a time that continues to both enthral and terrify us. IThere is a constant stream of novels written about the Jewish experience during World War II - a time that continues to both enthral and terrify us. It is of immense importance to keep the past alive through personal, human stories, in the hopes that we will be better prepared, better able to spot such atrocities today and in the future. Sadly we've seen that this is a nice theory that doesn't play out; however it's important to keep trying.
One area of WWII that is less explored but equally important are stories from the non-Jewish perspective, stories about Nazi soldiers or ordinary German civilians, stories about others who also experienced the war but in different ways. The Paris Architect adds to this meagre slice of historical fiction pie with its story of a French gentile and architect, Lucien Bernard, who has no particular feelings either way about the Jews - though when pressed, he's no "Jew-lover" - but seeks to get by under German occupation.
In a strained and childless marriage to Celeste, and a social-climber mistress, Adele, on the side, Lucien's big ambition in life is to have one of his designs built in Paris for all to see. The occupation has made much of life and work in the city stall, but there are also surprising opportunities as well. The Germans are building infrastructure - factories to make the weapons used against the Allies - on French soil, working with well-established French businessmen and unpaid forced labour to get their projects built fast. Lucien is approached by one such businessman, an old man called Manet, who has a frightening proposal. Flattering Lucien's skills and vanity and appealing to a sense of moral rightness that Lucien doesn't feel he possesses, Manet dangles the promise of hiring Lucien to build a big munitions factory if he will also design an ingenious hiding place for a wealthy Jew being hunted by the Gestapo.
It isn't a sense of empathy for the Jews that leads Lucien to take on the task, one that could see him tortured and killed. It's the challenge, the vanity, of besting others that leads Lucien to agree to Manet's terms despite his incredible fear. Lucien isn't interested in dying for a cause. He wants to live, survive the war, and prosper too. Architecture is more important to him than anything else in his life.
But as Manet continues to ask Lucien to design more hiding places for terrified Jews, and Lucien even meets one of the men he's helping, something in him begins to change. The Jews become human beings, and the matter of hiding them, helping them survive and escape, becomes deeply personal. But as the Gestapo cotton on to the hiding places and begin torturing builders and craftsmen for information, the net starts to tighten around Lucien and Manet. How much longer before connections are made, and their time is up?
The Paris Architect is a wonderful story, a fresh take on the story of German occupation in France, the plight of Jews and life for non-Jews under the occupation. Lucien is one of those flawed characters who is undeniably, realistically human - the kind of person you can relate to because his concerns, his fears, his sense of morality are, lets be honest, the norm. Whether it's World War II or today, most of us would be just like Lucien, regardless of how much we'd like to think we'd do better, be better. Human nature trumps in survival cases. If we already ignore people who are suffering in times of peace, why would we think we'd be any better in times of war and terror?
Yet Lucien also shows that you can make choices and change. You can decide what you want to stand for, what's worth fighting for - and dying for. The tension in this novel is palpable, aided by gruesome scenes of torture by the Gestapo on French civilians. From a craftsmanship angle, a more subtle technique ("less is more") would have been just as affective, if not more so. The problem with Belfoure's scenes of torture is that it's hard to write such scenes, especially in a readable novel like this (as opposed to a more "literary" style, as much as I hate using that term), without sliding into cheese. I'm not sure that Belfoure was quite successful in getting into the minds of Gestapo officers - can't really fault him for that - but in the absence of true insight or understanding, the tension and genuine fear can be created in other, more convincing ways. The Gestapo officers began to sound like clichéd film villains in silly action movies - a Stallone cheesefest from the 80s, that kind of thing.
Belfoure was clearly more comfortable with the civilian characters, and developed Lucien into a believable, sympathetic character even when he's not all that likeable. The fact that he matures and becomes, for want of a less corny expression, a "better person", absolves him of his earlier vanity and ego. Not to mention that he's quite honest with himself about his vanity and ego.
There's a lot to learn from The Paris Architect - about daily life under occupation, about architecture and, especially, about human nature. Not always predictable, the tension and drama propels the story forwards to a fitting climax. At its heart, The Paris Architect is about the small deeds of courage and conscience that people are capable of in times of oppression and fear. While the self-policing conducted by French citizens on each other - spying on their neighbours, reporting people to the police to protect themselves - is unflattering, it serves to make those smaller, sometimes barely visible deeds all the more important. If I can bastardise a quote from Othello for a moment here, I would say that people like Lucien and Bette lived "not wisely, but too well." The point being, they lived, and they lived a life they could be proud of by making choices that weren't wise in the circumstances, but were worth it.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book. ...more
'I believe we can make a solid argument that African-American boys ought to be deemed legally endangered. Their very lives are threatened with extinct'I believe we can make a solid argument that African-American boys ought to be deemed legally endangered. Their very lives are threatened with extinction, or at least any meaningful existence, and thereby ought to be afforded certain protections based on their classification as such.'
Roger Whitford, an attorney for the Centre for the Protection of Human Rights, has a plan to put a stop to the prejudiced treatment of black men in the United States, men - and boys - who make up a third of prison inmates. When Janae Williams' fifteen-year-old son Malik is arrested for the murder of his friend Troy - the twenty-ninth murder in Philadelphia in the twenty days since the start of the year - Roger decides to take on the case, not just to free Malik, but to launch his big campaign to get black males in America extra support and protection.
Janae is a classic statistic: pregnant as a teen, she put her education on hold to have the baby and raise it on her own. Now she works as a cashier in a hospital cafeteria, striving to make ends meet and give Malik a chance to make something of his life. But now, he's not just been accused of murder, the prosecution wants to try him as an adult - the standard response to murder cases. Keeping him in the juvenile court is just the first step in Roger's plan, but first he needs to get Janae on side - not an easy task when you're comparing her son to an animal.
Roger plans to use the Endangered Animals Act and have it extended to include African-American males, but it's a hard pill to swallow for the community and Janae in particular. Even more so for young, ambitious Calvin Moore, a hotshot lawyer at a big firm with grand plans who studied his way out of the community Janae is stuck in. Roger wants Calvin on the case, but it's a tough sell. Not until Calvin stops seeing his origins as something to turn his back on and instead as something he should try and use his skills and position to help, do the pieces start to fall into place.
But will Roger sacrifice Malik for the sake of the bigger picture? Can Janae truly trust an old white man to keep her son out of jail?
Cush's debut novel has a clear aim and agenda, and tackles it well. With a tight focus, a neatly delivered storyline and believable characters, she brings the human angle to a serious issue of race, discrimination, prejudice and poverty. It's a fairly short book that makes the wise decision to keep the spotlight on Janae and her son, rather than a long, drawn-out legal and political battlefield that could end who knows where. As much as you can't help but want to follow through and see where Roger's plan ends up, it would detract from the story without adding anything - especially considering that the situation Malik finds himself in is pretty much unchanged today. The point, I would think, is to get people thinking in a different way about the issues, to open a debate (or contribute to an already-existing one), not to launch into an actual, fictional campaign.
While the writing does, at times, carry the whiff of a beginner novelist - especially in some of the descriptions and language - there's no denying that Endangered has the necessary ingredients for a great story, is highly readable and shows the author's great potential. At times a bit simplistic, I nevertheless appreciated the human angle to the story. If the characters seemed a bit stereotypical, part of that would be because there's some truth in stereotypes, and part of it would be because the author hasn't yet reached her full range and stereotypes are unavoidable. Perhaps more time could have been spent on fleshing the main characters out, to make them feel and sound less like stock characters, but the writing was nicely, smoothly consistent throughout and the simple touch was actually refreshing.
Cush stretches her legal chops in the legal-drama side of the story; an attorney for many years, she has a focus on domestic abuse, urban violence, and inner-city education. The descriptions and dialogue between the lawyers and the judge, for instance, were accessible to a layman like me while still sounding authentic and believable.
Throughout the story, I couldn't help but feel a chill at the thought of children - children - being tried as adults and sent to adult prison. This is, according to the story, a law in Pennsylvania, and is just one of several laws that I, as a non-American, hear about and shudder at. As Endangered shows, it casts the wrong emphasis on crime, and neglects - and downright ignores - the issues behind crime. I'm naturally leery whenever I hear the words "zero tolerance" because it's so black-and-white and encourages black-and-white thinking, prejudice and a "hard-ass" attitude based on the idea that everyone's equal and there are no excuses. There aren't excuses, but there are reasons, and if you don't stop and consider those reasons and what's really going on - if you don't get at the crux of the matter - then you're never going to really, truly stop it from happening. Because clearly the threat of jail time doesn't do much at all, and as this novel pointed out, prisons create hardened criminals out of people who made mistakes or did something dumb, for various reasons. It's a big, complex mess of issues that throws open the debate of nature versus nurture - whether you're a criminal, or whether your environment and various social factors contributed to you going down a particular path that, if the factors had been different, you might not have gone down.
Endangered doesn't try to please those "hard-asses": it clearly posits the understanding that these boys slip into crime because of poverty, peer pressure and other social factors. The lack of good male role models is also a contributing factor - not just in black American communities but everywhere - but again, Cush manages to blend the two sides: that you do have a say in how your life turns out, and you can change it; and that the world you come from does mean that we don't all start out equal.
An enlightening and thought-provoking novel, Endangered blends readable entertainment with prevalent social issues to position Jean Love Cush as a writer to watch.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via TLC Book Tours. ...more
Marc Schlosser is a general practitioner who caters mostly to artists - writers, painters, comedians, actors - mostly because of his office hours. UnlMarc Schlosser is a general practitioner who caters mostly to artists - writers, painters, comedians, actors - mostly because of his office hours. Unlike other GPs, he prides himself on the generous twenty minutes he gives each patient, even though he's mentally diagnosed them within the first five. People just like to be able to talk it over and feel that their doctor is listening to them.
One of his patients is celebrity actor Ralph Meier. A large, charismatic man and a good actor, Ralph turned up suddenly in his office one day, needing pills - and having heard through the grapevine that Marc prescribes things without much fuss. Much later, he turns up again, this time with a lump on his thigh. Only months later, Ralph is dead and Marc is due to appear before the Board of Medical Examiners who will decide whether it was a tragic case of mismanagement or something more deliberate.
Between the time of first meeting the actor and his death the following year - which Ralph's wife, Judith, is holding him personally accountable for - something happened. When Marc, his beautiful wife Caroline and their two young daughters, thirteen year old Julia and eleven year old Lisa, took their summer holiday on the Mediterranean, they ended up spending a week at the Meier's summer house. How could the lazy days of barbecuing, swimming in the pool, playing table tennis with Ralph and Judith's two boys, Alex and Thomas, and enjoying the beaches lead to an error that cost a man his life? And if it was deliberate, why would Marc do such a thing?
I haven't yet read Koch's previous book, The Dinner - it's on my shelf, along with many other unread books that I'm just as enthusiastic about - so I can't compare this or say, "If you liked that, you'll like this." But I'm thinking that's probably the case anyway. This is one of those deliciously confronting, uncomfortable novels, the kind of story that manages to sound so reasonable and ordinary and yet flirts with all those human flaws we like to think we've risen above. Touching on issues around sexual attraction, morality, instincts and what it means to be a father, Summer House with Swimming Pool is a black comedy - at once funny and disturbing - featuring a protagonist whom you're never entirely sure is sympathetic or even likeable. Similar things have been said about The Dinner, so that should tell you if you'd like this one or not.
From the moment I sat down in the bookshop and started reading the first chapter, I was drawn in by the incredible honesty and discomfiting observations of the narrator, Marc. This is one of those stories that reminds us of why we should be so grateful we can't read other people's minds: you just don't want to know what other people are really thinking. But if you stop and listen to your own thoughts about others, and about certain topics, you'll get an idea: our own thoughts are often best kept to ourselves. Hearing exactly what Marc thinks about things - often contradictory, complex and insightful - makes it hard to decide whether you, the reader, like him or not.
When we read we tend to look for patterns, signs, clues or motifs that tells us how we're meant to read something - genre first, then a host of literary techniques and stylistic devices that influence how we understand things and connect to characters. Koch toys with such conventions, with the result that Marc Schlosser reminded me of a David Cronenberg film: a bit surreal, certainly disturbing, uncomfortably confronting, absolutely fascinating, definitely mesmerising. For as much as we might go "ewwww" at things, privately or publicly, deep down we love being exposed to what's normally hidden. Freak shows may be a thing of the past, but between celebrity gossip magazines (our own version of the freak show, the way they write about people) and the internet (showing us pictures of deformity, excess etc.), we're still drawn to it all.
We're inside Marc's head, but it's easy to see that on the outside, he's very normal. That's perhaps the most disturbing part, because he reminds us that all the ordinary people in our society still think things or perceive things in ways we pretend to be oblivious to. He's so frank, to us readers, and there's no real duplicity or manipulation or cunning to him, he simply obeys the rules of our society, our culture. As he says in regards to pedophilia and being attracted to young girls, everyone experiences that attraction, but the difference is that most people don't act on it. Marc is in control, yet because of that sense of being in his head in "real time", we don't know what he's going to do next. That makes him unpredictable, which is where you get the sense that there's something off about him, something almost sinister. The whole way through this book, you're not sure just what kind of man he is or what he'll do, but because you hear his thoughts, you realise he's capable. As is everyone, really.
What's exhilarating about Summer House and its narrator is how realistic it is. Never straight-forward, Marc is just like you and me: full of contradictions, a mix of morally good and reprehensibly, potentially bad. He's the image in the mirror we'd rather not see, but Koch thrusts us into his head with no mercy. Marc is fiercely protective and loving towards his girls, yet freely admits he'd rather have had sons. As would everyone, he tells us - and its this propensity to dictate and lecture us readers that makes him unlikeable (that and, for me, his often negative and stereotypical views on women, including his wife). Marc is still heavily influenced by his professor of medical biology, Aaron Herzl, whose lectures he repeats for us, lectures on reproduction, homosexuality, women. Marc's own feelings about women are often less than complimentary, and his behaviour makes him less than sympathetic, especially, I'm sure, to female readers. What it boils down to - what he never, ever, lets himself think - is that everything that happened that week at the summer house could be blamed entirely on him. But as the book shows, nothing is ever that simple.
It's the psychological aspect to this novel that I really liked. Set in the Netherlands and somewhere around the Mediterranean, there's little sense of place: this is a story that could have been set anywhere, really. The characters are familiar in the way Western white people are always familiar to Western, white readers. Koch provides no answers, nor does he overtly judge; through Marc's eyes and thoughts we get Marc's ideas, perceptions and values. The story reveals itself slowly, with well-placed foreshadowing, much like a lazy summer day. Its disturbing qualities are captured neatly in Marc's penchant for dwelling on disgusting details, details about the human body - its appearance as well as what goes on beneath the skin - as well as a sharp, if biased and judgemental, insight into other people's characters and personalities.
That's how I looked at Ralph when he dived into the pool. Every time, I considered the possibility that he might not surface again. Or that he would bash his drunken skull against the bottom and be paralysed from head to toe. But each time he surfaced again, coughing and sneezing and hawking, and dragged himself up the ladder. Then he would spread a towel over a deckchair and lie down in the sun to dry. He never covered himself. He lay with his legs spread, his body too large for the deckchair, his feet hanging over the end: all loose and lazy, tanning in the sun. 'Is this a holiday or is this a holiday?' he said, burping and closing his eyes. A minute later his mouth had dropped open and he was snoring loudly. I looked at his stomach and legs. At his dick, hanging to one side and resting on his thigh. And then I looked at my two daughters. At Julia and Lisa. They didn't seem offended at all. [...] I wondered whether perhaps I was, indeed, narrow-minded. Whether it was my own fault that the sight of Ralph Meier's naked dick so close to my young daughters seemed so filthy. [pp.159-160]
That should give you a taste, as well as a pretty good idea of what direction the story goes in. But I won't say more than that.
Summer House with Swimming Pool is well crafted and deliberately confronting - in the best possible way. And being inside Marc's head, you start to feel almost culpable, guilty of the same thoughts he has, which leaves you feeling even more repulsed. And indecisive. As it should be. We're all flawed, complex and contradictory. We all have unpleasant thoughts, or thoughts that others would find unpleasant. At the heart of this story is the distinction between private and public, between what we must keep to ourselves and what we can share. You can't really blame Marc for the way he thinks, for the hint of misogyny that taints his perception of women, because it's the private sphere, a sphere we wouldn't normally get to experience (nor would we want to); at the end of it all, there's a part of you - the part that stops feeling so superior - that respects him for knowing the difference. ...more
My son is a big fan of Peppa Pig, a five-minute cartoon featuring a family of pigs and their various animal friends. British, and featuring lots of joMy son is a big fan of Peppa Pig, a five-minute cartoon featuring a family of pigs and their various animal friends. British, and featuring lots of jokes and irony for an older audience to enjoy (watch out especially for Mr Wolf with his deep and slightly creepy voice and all the innuendos), the show is very good fun. My three-year-old often laughs himself silly while watching it - between Thomas the Tank Engine, Peppa Pig and Bob the Builder, there's always something age-appropriate, 'accessible' and non-scary for him to watch.
Peppa is four, I think, but as is the way with cartoon characters, she never ages. This spin-off book is about her fourth birthday and the party she has with her friends, including magic tricks from "Magic Daddy" (who wanted to be called The Amazing Mysterio). It reads very much like one of the television episodes, and kids familiar with the show will delight in this picture book. Just remember to make the noise every time you see the word "snort!"...more