29 April 2024

Review: The Library Thief by Kuchenga Shenjé

The Library Thief by Kuchenga Shenjé book cover

* Copy courtesy of Hachette *

It's 1896 and Florence Granger is helping her father in the family business Granger's Bookbinders in Manchester. Florence is disowned when she brings shame upon the family but before her father kicks her out onto the street, Grace intercepts a request from a valued client in Lancashire.

Florence travels to Rose Hall in Lancashire in her father's stead and talks her way into restoring the many rare books held in Lord Francis Belfield's personal library. Her position and standing is precarious, but her secret soon pales against the goings on at Rose Hall. Lord Belfield is a widower and it's not long before Florence becomes curious about his wife's untimely demise, convinced it wasn't an accident.

What transpires next in The Library Thief by Kuchenga Shenjé is a gothic mystery and upstairs/downstairs whodunnit and I was entertained the entire way. Early on, Florence is attending church when she gains her first real inkling about her local community and standing of the household she now resides in:
"In the first five pews sat the landed gentry with wives in black or navy satins and velvets, the most ostentatious in deep sapphires, emeralds and violets. All the husbands in the same uniform of morning suit with their hats laid next to them beside their well-trained children praying piously or with their eyes fixed ahead. I knew enough to avoid wearing anything made from loud rustling material, but I felt plain and shabby in my grey dress and threadbare shawl. We sat among the staff. Governesses, footmen, maids and gardeners; all clearly sat in order of importance within the small village, and then their own households." Page 20
Florence then goes on to acknowledge with some surprise that the social standing of her household in the area must be middling, given their pew position so far back in the church.

I'm a sucker for historical fiction novels about governesses (Mrs England by Stacey Halls) and I'll be loath to shelve this book because then I won't be able to enjoy seeing the cover design on my desk every day. (This happened with The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell too!)

In fact, The Library Thief by Kuchenga Shenjé definitely gave me Stacey Halls and Laura Purcell vibes, but the writing was definitely unique:
"In my experience, men of the cloth were quite learned folk, but something about him irked me. The smell of him, first of all, was somewhere between offal and the dank emissions from the corners of a pond that got no light." Page 86
What a description! I really enjoyed the setting at Rose Hall, Florence's relationships with the staff and of course Lord Francis. I love a good upstairs / downstairs tale however Shenjé somehow manages to keep the relationships relatable to today's sensibilities without disrespecting the historical setting. 

I loved this description, and immediately felt like it could describe the relationship I enjoy with my husband:
"The jocularity between them was so well-grooved, it made me think of a carpenter bevelling the edges of wood, and the peels of wood curling up, making smooth laughing sounds along the way. They jostled and poked each other with the jokes that only they could make." Page 203
The Library Thief by Kuchenga Shenjé has a stunning cover design (the second absolute stand out design this year; the first being The Book of Doors by Gareth Brown) and delivers an historical gothic mystery about secrets, class, race, friendship, love, grief, female agency all wrapped up by a bookbinder poking about and asking questions. Perfect.

It's hard to believe The Library Thief is the author's debut novel, but Kuchenga Shenjé has definitely become an instant auto read for me, easily up there with Laura Purcell and Stacey Halls, highly recommended!

My Rating:

23 April 2024

Review: That's Not How You Wash A Squirrel by David Thorne

That's Not How You Wash A Squirrel by David Thorne book cover

Residing in USA, David Thorne is the Australian author behind the notorious Missing Missy and despite a scathing review of Look Evelyn Duck Dynasty Wiper Blades. We Should Get Them in 2020, I still owned two more of the author's books. At the time I expressed my irritation at the fat phobic content and uncertainty around whether Thorne uses creative licence in a self deprecating manner in an ironic attempt to further his unlikable persona in the pursuit of entertainment; or if he's just a dick.

Four years have passed and many books have been read since then and I believe enough time has elapsed for me to tackle the next one on the pile. Did it make me chuckle or frown? Short answer, both!

The author does write humourous dialogue, and I enjoyed this excerpt from an exchange with partner Holly:
"No, you're supposed to say something nice back."
"Your hair looks nice today."
"Thanks. I used your conditioner in the little red tube."
"That's foot cream." Page 20
The title story about rearing a baby squirrel was my favourite from the collection and it was very cute. But then the author churns out a comment like this one that left a sour taste in my mouth for a few pages:
"We did visit my sister a few weeks later but there were no secret passageways in her house and neither Seb or I gave a fuck about her origami owls or potplant hangers. Any halfwit with a roll of string and a few sticks can set up an Etsy shop." Page 39
There's no context about Thorne's sister and she isn't referred to often. That particular comment came off the back of a reunion with his estranged father who had a secret passageway in his house, but without context or knowing anything about the author's sister, it's hard to interpret that comment as anything other than rude. Who writes like that publicly about their sibling anyway?

If he's joking, then it's not a joke I can join in on. I found it rude and insulting and it made me wonder if this guy means every word he writes or if he's just an arsehole. I'm starting to lean towards the latter, but you be the judge:
"I fully support discrimination against fat people but if one sat next to me on a plane I wouldn't move, ask them to move, or talk to them. I'd just be quietly annoyed the whole flight and try to breath through my mouth." Page 52
Seriously? Is this guy the real deal? Published in 2015, thankfully That's Not How You Wash A Squirrel contains fewer fat phobic references, but the fat shaming was still there. At one point he refers to a 'crazed looking flabby woman in her thirties named Rian', but it's not just fat people and fat women who irk our author:
"Penguin represent my first book but my marketing person there is a small angry Asian woman who yells a lot so I have her number blocked." Page 147
Wow, blocking the Marketing Rep from Penguin on your phone when you depend on their representation, hilarious! Hopefully you could hear the drip of my sarcasm there. It's just not funny.

The occasional fat phobic content was off putting and while I enjoyed a somewhat amusing story about hunting for the first time in the USA, I can't tell if the content has been inspired or lifted from the author's lived experience or whether it's all fiction. Is this self deprecating humour written by a humble guy unafraid of being judged harshly? Or is he just a run of the mill arsehole, wandering aimlessly around a camp site so that he doesn't have to help his mates pack up? He sounds like a tool, but that's also what used to make his writing funny.

There's a fine line and I'm never sure how close to it we are, but it feels like we're getting further away from the author's core talent for entertaining the reader. In a different example, Thorne shares a section detailing the passing of a friend after a dramatic car accident that was incredibly moving, yet I'm not sure if he's 'taking the piss'* or not.

I decided years ago not to purchase any more of David Thorne's new work, but I still have Walk It Off, Princess on my TBR pile. I can hear some of you thinking 'don't read it if you don't like his work' but have you ever decided not to read a book you purchased? Published in 2018 three years after this title, I'm hoping the downward trend on insulting people continues and the sense of humour so prevalent in his earlier work resurfaces in fine form. There's hope yet!

Check out my reviews to some of the author's better books:
- The Internet is a Playground ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
- I'll Go Home Then; It's Warm and Has Chairs - The Unpublished Emails ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
- Wrap It In A Bit Of Cheese Like You're Tricking The Dog ⭐⭐⭐
- Look Evelyn Duck Dynasty Wiper Blades. We Should Get Them ⭐⭐

My Rating:

*Australian slang term for 'having a lend'.
17 April 2024

Review: The Miracles of the Namiya General Store by Keigo Higashino

The Miracles of the Namiya General Store by Keigo Higashino book cover

Translated by Sam Bett, The Miracles of the Namiya General Store by Japanese author Keigo Higashino has an enticing premise. Three youths seek a place to lay low after carrying out a robbery and they break into the Namiya General Store. Seemingly abandoned and run down, they're surprised when a letter asking the previous shopkeeper for advice drops through the mail slot.

The young men quickly realise this isn't an ordinary shop, but what advice could they possibly have to give? They're certainly not upstanding citizens leading a successful and rewarding life are they? What should they do? And if they choose to answer the letter, what advice should they give?

The narrative expands as new and old letters are referred to and advice is both sought and received. The plot does get a little timey wimey in that time stops inside the general store and a connection between past and present is established although never adequately explained. This reader hardly cared (see my review of Under The Dome to see how I can ignore the 'why' of the premise and just enjoy the fallout), instead delighting in the various interconnecting characters in a cleverly spun narrative web.

In fact, I'd love to see a character map representing the interconnecting characters and their various overlapping narrative arcs, I think it'd be a beautiful sight indeed. It certainly seemed as though the entire plot was connected with silvery gossamer thread and Higashino took the reader around the web pointing out different patterns and individual stories.

In assessing the advice requested and the advice provided, we're given a glimpse into how that advice was or wasn't followed and how it all turned out. In doing so, the author raises the notion that many people are experiencing challenges in their lives, facing choices they don't want to make or decisions they can't seem to reach or make their peace with.

Similarly, the author seems to suggest that even a lowly delinquent may have advice worth considering to offer a fellow human being in crisis. Every individual has value to contribute and the innate ability to make a positive difference in the life of a stranger.

Employing a combination of magical realism, urban fantasy and science fiction, The Miracles of the Namiya General Store is a heartwarming, uplifting, positive feel-good read and I highly recommend it!

My Rating:

15 April 2024

Review: The Summer I Robbed a Bank by David O'Doherty

The Summer I Robbed a Bank by David O'Doherty book cover

I'm a huge fan of Irish comedian David O'Doherty, and on seeing he'd released a middle grade book for kids I was immediately reserving the print copy and audiobook from my library.

When The Summer I Robbed a Bank begins, 12 year old Rex is sent to stay with his Uncle Derm on remote Achill Island for the school holidays. Rex is expecting to have a boring time, what with all of the sheep, but things don't quite go exactly to plan. Rex meets Kitty and their adventures together were amusing and heartwarming at the same time.
"We laughed so hard we had to lean on things." Page 21
I really enjoy O'Doherty's view of the world and it's also why I enjoy his comedy so much. His sense of humour and imagination work well with his observations of people and relationships in a unique and very appealing way. I was happy to find this talent translated well to his middle grade fiction too:
"I didn't want to look round, but I couldn't help myself, in the same way you can't not watch a football heading towards a window." Page 61
Read in the author's distinctive accent and endearing storytelling style, The Summer I Robbed a Bank by David O'Doherty was an absolute pleasure to listen to and read. I did wonder about the target reading audience for middle grade books like these. I mean, if the protagonist Rex is 12 years old, is the target reading audience also 12 or a few years younger in an aspirational sense? 

Fortunately I had the pleasure of seeing David O'Doherty perform live here in Melbourne during the Melbourne International Comedy Festival 2024 just after I'd read this book. When the author spoke of relocating during the pandemic and living with his parents on Achill Island for six months I smiled in recognition.

I've since learned David O'Doherty has written a number of books for youngsters and while I haven't read any others, I can highly recommended this one for both kids and parents! I defy you to listen to this FREE sample on the publisher's website and not keep reading.

My Rating:

09 April 2024

Review: The Institute by Stephen King

The Institute by Stephen King book cover

The Institute by Stephen King will be akin to coming home for readers familiar with SKs oeuvre. A band of kids working together. An injustice of sorts. A clear bad guy / bad guys situation. A secret government facility. Check check check. Now throw in a touch of supernatural ability in the form of kids with telekinesis or telepathy and you have the basic ingredients of another solid King outing.

The story kicks off when twelve year old Luke Ellis is kidnapped from his home and wakes up at the institute of the title. Luke joins other similarly gifted kids being held at the government sanctioned facility against their will, and they've all been fed the lie they'll be allowed to return home to their families - with their memories wiped of course - after they've served their country.

A familiar pecking order is established as the kids adjust to their surroundings and try to understand what's going on. Naturally there's a little bit of bullying but ultimately firm friendships are formed in true King style, which includes amusing dialogue like this between two of the young characters:
"What if I don't?"
Nicky smiled. "Then I'll fuck you up, fat boy." Page 135
As with any King novel, character development is often the highlight and in The Institute a significant character named Tim Jamieson was established early on that I wanted to explore further. I thought he was the primary protagonist but after disappearing for a large chunk of the book, the character later resurfaces but the care factor had diminished by the intervening pages. This left me feeling a little irritated for investing so heavily in his character arc in the early pages.

The purpose of the secret medical facility is to measure and enhance the abilities of the children in a series of medical exams and terribly invasive tests. This definitely gave me Stranger Things vibes and I was surprised to learn The Institute was published in 2019, three years after the release of season 1 of Stranger Things in 2016. Whether either project was influenced by the other, kids being experimented on in the pursuit of harnessing their gifts for the greater good isn't new.

Ultimately King asks the reader to consider whether the sacrifices of a few gifted children and their families outweighs the potential suffering of hundreds, thousands or perhaps in extreme circumstances, even millions of people.

The big showdown at the end of the novel requires the reader to ball up their disbelief and peg it at the nearest oversized telephone and hope for the best. A solid outing from Stephen King.

My Rating:

05 April 2024

Review: The Beauties by Lauren Chater

The Beauties by Lauren Chater book cover

* Copy courtesy Simon & Schuster *

It's 1665 and Emilia Lennox heads to court to seek the favour of King Charles II after losing everything when her husband's lands and title were confiscated. Seeking to have them restored, Emilia begins a dangerous liaison where the lengths to which she'll go to have her status restored by the King will be tested. Meanwhile, Henry is a talented artist and assistant to the court painter commissioned to produce a series of portraits; the beauties from the title.

The Beauties by Lauren Chater contains multiple narrators with alternating chapters from both Emilia and Henry in the 'present' time period, and chapters from years earlier told by a younger Anne Hyde from the Hague.

Assuming The Hague was in France when in fact it's in the Netherlands and not noticing the Anne Hyde chapters were 6 years earlier than the primary timeline was a mistake on my part that generated some reader confusion and slight disconnect as a result.

Perhaps if I knew my history a little better, I'd have realised sooner that young Anne Hyde went on to become the first wife of James, Duke of York, making her the Duchess of York. The chapters that slip back in time a mere six or so years earlier to capture the Duchess of York commissioning the series of portraits was an odd choice to me. The narrative between Emilia and Henry was rich with compelling characters and there was plenty going on to hold the reader's interest without that.

That said, let's enjoy some of the descriptive writing that kept me engaged throughout:
"To distract myself, I poured all my energy into my new role as a lady-in-waiting. When the season changed, I travelled with the Princess to her home at Binnenhof Palace in The Hague. There I learned to dress the Princess's fine brown hair for stately occasions, pinning the curls tightly to her scalp so only the pearled tips of the pins peeked through. I learned how to sponge sweat out of a gown by daubing a mixture of vinegar and spit to lift the offending mark." Page 49
The setting at court was richly described and my feet ached along with Emilia's as she waited hours on end for a glimpse of the King. I thoroughly enjoyed the painterly setting at the artist's studio and the production goings on at the theatre.

It's somehow reassuring - although I'm not sure why or how - to see characters written today, yet placed in a novel set more than 350 years ago having the same struggles we do. The author convincingly captures the timeless nature of the worries that often plague us:
"At night, she lies awake staring at the roofbeams while the questions twist and twine, tying her in ever tighter knots of confusion. If only she could see the outcomes of her choices, then she could safely decide." Page 132-133
Emilia was trying to decide her future and I recently found myself wishing the same were true. Speaking of worries that often plague us, those who know their history well (which isn't me obviously) will recognise the year 1665 as being smack bang in the middle of the Great Plague of London and while only occupying a small section of the novel, I did enjoy the impact the plague had on the various characters. This was very well handled and I enjoyed the realistic portrayal of events and outcomes between characters as a result.

The Beauties by Lauren Chater is highly recommended for readers who enjoy a little art with their historical fiction, and if you enjoyed Beauty In Thorns by Kate Forsyth or The Doll Factory by Elizabeth MacNeal then this is for you!

My Rating: