Reader Review: "All the Ugly and Wonderful Things"

by Cloggie Downunder (Thirroul): All The Ugly And Wonderful Things is the first novel by American author, Bryn Greenwood. Eight-year-old Wavonna Lee Quinn has seen more than her share of ugly things in her short life. Her father is a drug dealer with a meth lab just down the hill from the farmhouse where she lives with her mother. Valerie Quinn is drug-addled and self-absorbed, and Wavy spends her days trying to live something like a normal life while protecting her baby brother, Donal from Val's psychotic fluctuations.

In her life there are few wonderful things; one of those is lying in the nearby meadow looking up at the stars and naming the constellations. Which is what Wavy is doing when Jesse Joe Kellen, a mechanic on an errand for her father, comes riding along on his 1956 Panhead. Seeing ths blond angel at the side of the road causes Kellen to skid, wreck the bike and injure himself in the process. Wavy overcomes her usual reserve to help him.

From this accidental meeting, an unlikely friendship develops between these two. With her family's lifestyle, Wavy is exposed to violence, drugs and indiscriminate sex, so she has learned to keep a low profile, to eschew attachment to possessions, to trust no one. But Kellen, despite his appearance, despite his criminal history, despite his age (he's thirteen years older than her), earns her trust. In fact, he's the only person in her life who cares enough to see her nourished, schooled and protected from harm. But when Wavy reaches her teens, and the relationship changes tenor, it attracts unwelcome attention with tragic consequences.

Greenwood uses multiple narrators to present her story, and these give many points of view, but from Kellen and Wavy's perspectives, the relationship can be seen as genuine and pure. Greenwood portrays her characters skilfully, and she conveys the sense of time and place and the prevalent social attitudes with consummate ease. Her descriptive prose is often exquisite. This is a tale that is likely to polarise readers, emotional and thought-provoking. A brilliant debut.

Reader Review: "News of the World"

by Ruth H (Sebring, FL): What an amazing story. Could not put it down! Capt. Jefferson Kyle Kidd takes on a captured 10 year old girl for a most dangerous trip in 1870 through Texas. Could not imagine how difficult this must have been. Author Paulette Jiles has written so descriptively that one would imagine being right there. So enjoyed this book.

Reader Review: "Cruel Beautiful World"

by Becky H (Chicago): Lucy, 16 and naive, runs away with her High School teacher. Their life together in an isolated, and isolating, rural area is not what Lucy expected. Lucy is portrayed sympathetically. The reader gets to know her intimately through her thoughts and actions. William, the teacher, is not so well known. His back story is presented in back flashes. His life with Lucy is seen only through her eyes. Lucy's sister, a minor but very important character, never gives up searching for her sister. The reader is constantly aware that "this will not end well", but the actual ending is dramatic and terrifying. You will remember this book for a long time.

Reader Review: "Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine"

by Cloggie Downunder (Thirroul): "Even the circus freak side of my face – my damaged half – was better than the alternative, which would have meant death by fire. I didn't burn to ashes. I emerged from the flames like a little phoenix. I ran my fingers over the scar tissue, caressing the contours…. There are scars on my heart, just as thick, as disfiguring as those on my face. I know they're there. I hope some undamaged tissue remains, a patch through which love can come in and flow out. I hope."

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is the first novel by British author, Gail Honeyman. At thirty years of age, and despite her degree in Classics, Eleanor Oliphant has worked a mundane office job in By Design, a graphic design company in Glasgow for nine years. She has no friends and the people she works with find her strange. But her life is well organised: completely fine, in her opinion, needing nothing. Until, that is, she casts eyes on musician Johnnie Lomond.

Eleanor sets out to attract the love of her life, undergoing several preparatory procedures to ready herself for a potential encounter (waxing, hair, nails, make-up), as well as acquiring the electronic means to do some research on the object of her attention. She is distracted from her task by Raymond Gibbons, the firm's (rather slovenly) IT consultant, who ropes her into helping an old man who has fallen in the street. Eleanor is sure he's drunk but "…Even alcoholics deserve help, I suppose, although they should get drunk at home, like I do, so that they don't cause anyone else any trouble. But then, not everyone is as sensible and considerate as me."

Honeyman gives the reader a moving tale that includes a good dose of humour. Eleanor is a complex character: socially inept but generally unaware of it, often remarking on the lack of manners that others display: "'You don't look like a social worker,' I said. She stared at me but said nothing. Not again! In every walk of life, I encounter people with underdeveloped social skills with alarming frequency. Why is it that client-facing jobs hold such allure for misanthropes…"

Yet Eleanor is often insightful, although she can also be naïve: "After all, how hard could it be? … If I could perform scansion on the Aeneid, if I could build a macro in an Excel spreadsheet, if I could spend the last nine birthdays and Christmases and New Year's Eves alone, then I'm sure I could manage to organize a delightful festive lunch for thirty people on a budget of ten pounds per capita"

Her literal interpretation of what people say often makes for laugh-out-loud moments, and her observations can be shrewd: "She had tried to steer me towards vertiginous heels again – why are these people so incredibly keen on crippling their female customers? I began to wonder if cobblers and chiropractors had established fiendish cartel."

This brilliant debut novel touches on childhood neglect, physical cruelty and emotional abuse, as well as repressed memories and survivor guilt. It highlights the value of a skilled counsellor and the importance of care and understanding, friendship and love. Recommended!

Reader Review: "Lily and the Octopus"

by Stephanie: It's got an adorable dog. It's got a guy who loves the adorable dog. In addition, he named the dog Lily (as opposed to something like Schnitzel) because he knew the dog was going to be his friend, his companion and possibly the most important living creature in his life.

The write up refers to his therapist as "ineffective". I think that the relationship between Edward and his therapist is much more complicated than that. He's annoyed by her seemingly simple/simplistic questions, but then he's also annoyed when he asks if an octopus is a fish and she says she believes it's a cephalopod. At that point, he seems to think she's smart, but in the wrong way.

Of course, it's very sad, but it ends on a hopeful note and, no matter what happens, Lily is always with Edward.

Reader Review: "House of Names"

by Sandi W. (East Moline): I tell you this man can take a muddy puddle and make you think it is a fresh spring shower!! I thought I was done with mythology back in college. I had two literature classes devoted to mythology and thought I had read and reviewed it all. However, with all the authors coming out with up to date revised books on the Bard and mythology I am thoroughly enjoying the stories. This is not only one of my favorite authors, but it is his rendition of a Greek tragedy. Toibin's writing literally just takes me away. This is the story of King Agamemnon and his betrayal of his family, as he focuses on the coming war. The death of one daughter, the loss of his son and then the revenge of his wife takes place. His wife having taken in an enemy of the kingdom, to help her plot her revenge, gets her remaining daughter to lie for her and in the name of protection, exiles her son at the hand of her accompanying accomplice. Years go by before the son finds his way home, but not until after the death of his father. The two remaining children must then put the kingdom back to it rights - however they can. Written beautifully, Toibin carries you through the times and customs of this Greek tragedy as if you were reading a current day novel.

Reader Review: "Beneath a Marble Sky"

by Meg Keelly: John Shors was able to present a history lesson in a way that would make any person want to study the Taj Mahal. I am often surprised when people say they will only read nonfiction books. I don't think they realize how well researched a great piece of fiction is and the amount of education that can be gained from reading it. From page one I could not put this book down.

Reader Review: "Being Mortal"

by Nancy: This should be required reading for anyone over 30.....what Gwande has to say is important.....we are all mortal and at some point the effort to cure should be replaced with the effort to provide humane support and freedom from pain....to end our lives with dignity and peace....the medical profession and family members need to understand that treatments which prolong life at all costs ,no matter how well intended,only prolong pain and suffering.....professional hubris and selfish justification need to give way to a more humane acceptance of reality .....and certainly Hospice is one option for doing just that....clearly written with reason and compassion this book is a definitive argument for a realistic approach to illness and death.

Reader Review: "Anything Is Possible"

by Julie M (Golden Valley): Anything is Possible is the sequel to My Name is Lucy Barton which I absolutely loved, and I was worried that it could only be disappointing in comparison. I couldn't have been more wrong! This book is even better than the first. I took some minor characters from My Name is Lucy Barton who Lucy and her mother gossip about in the first book and flesh out their "real" stories. It's almost like a book of connected short stories done as though each is a novel in itself. I will be recommending this book to everyone!

Reader Review: "The Zookeeper's Wife"

by Cloggie Downunder (Thirroul): "One of the most remarkable things about Antonina was her determination to include play, animals, wonder, curiosity, marvel, and a wide blaze of innocence in a household where all dodged the ambient dangers, horrors, and uncertainties. That takes a special stripe of bravery rarely valued in wartime"

The Zookeeper's Wife is the eleventh book by American author, Diane Ackerman. It is non-fiction, but often reads like a novel, a plain narrative with spurts of lush descriptive prose, for example: "In a country under a death sentence, with seasonal cues like morning light or drifting constellations hidden behind shutters, time changed shape, lost some of its elasticity, and Antonina wrote that her days grew even more ephemeral and 'brittle, like soap bubbles breaking'"

It tells the story of Antonina Zabinska and her husband, Director of the Warsaw Zoo, Jan Zabinski. When Poland is occupied by the Nazis in 1939, the animals that aren't killed during bombing raids are stolen by Berlin zookeepers, and Jan and Antonina need something else to keep them busy. As the zoo cycles through different legitimate incarnations (pig farm, fur farm), the one business that is soon a constant, very much behind the scenes, is the concealment of Jews trying to escape the Ghetto and Nazi persecution.

After initial descriptions of the time before occupation, the bulk of the story tells of the Guests that passed through the Zabinski's Villa, both human and animal, with all their quirks, traits and oddities. Sometimes the text does get a bit bogged down in details (insect collections, sculpture, extinct species and back breeding), but the ingenuity of these brave people is amazing, and their generosity is truly uplifting. As an officer in the Home Army, and very active in the Resistance, Jan is often absent an it is up to Antonina to keep things running smoothly, and facilitate the passage of some three hundred people to safety.

"In prewar days, the villa had harboured more exotic animals, including a pair of baby otters, but the Zabinksis continued their tradition of people and animals coexisting under one roof, over and over welcoming stray animals into their lives and an already stressed household. Zookeepers by disposition, not fate, even in wartime with food scarce, they needed to remain among animals for life to feel true…"

Ackerman's extensive research is apparent on every page, as well as in the 21 pages of notes on the chapters, the 7-page bibliography and the comprehensive index. She portrays Jan as cool under pressure, demanding and critical, while Antonina comes across as clever and intuitive, but they are hard to connect with, perhaps because Ackerman had to base her tale on diaries and notes. It will be interesting to see what Hollywood does with this tale. A fascinating true story.

Reader Review: "Speak"

by Sharon Mills (Portsmouth England UK): 'Speak' A Novel by Louisa Hall is a multi narrative consisting of five seemingly unconnected voices distanced by geography, and alternating time periods spanning from the 1600's, to the near future of 2040.

The 'voices' have their own individual style of narrative:

Mary, a young girl sailing with her parents and her new husband from England to the Colonies uses her journal to document her anguished thoughts as an outlet for her frustrations and feelings of increasing despair and isolation. So touching and exquisitely written this was by far the most compelling narrative for me;

A Texas inmate writes his (confessional) memoirs for his part in the story;

Chat transcripts of a young girl's internet conversations are used as evidence in the inmate's trial;

We hear the sad, deeply moving private and individual thoughts of a couple who are drifting ever farther apart, but remaining ever closer together; again these narratives were highly emotive and deeply moving.

Alan Turing writes letters voicing his concerns about a friend to the mother, ultimately divulging his own intimate thoughts, inner turmoils and dilemmas, again sensitive, touching and beautifully composed.

The narrators 'speak' because they have a need to be heard and understood, but they do not necessarily 'speak' to whom they really should, nor are their voices necessarily heard by their intended listener. Their private intimate divulgences may also be read out of context, misinterpreted or manipulated and used against them or people connected to them in some way by an unintended listener. Therefore, not speaking and being misunderstood becomes a common thread in this complex tale.

These totally random stories, and characters initially appear to be unconnected, however as you read on, fragments that interconnect the voices and threads begin to come together making sense as the story unravels.

I savoured and devoured this book in equal measures and genuinely didn't want it to end. Louisa Hall is a master in the art of painting vivid imagery with the written word. With stunning, sumptuous and beautiful balletic prose, I absolutely adored this novel.

Powerfully written in its complexity, and diverse in narrative style, Speak is sheer brilliance in its construction and delivery. Fans of David Mitchell's 'Cloud Atlas', Emily St. John Mandel's 'Station Eleven' and Erin Morgenstern's 'The Night Circus' should seek this one out as a 'must read'.

It is unfathomable to believe that 'Speak' is only the second novel from the author. I'll definitely read more from Louisa Hall and will have to contain my excitement until her next book is published.

Reader Review: "The Atomic Weight of Love"

by Sharon (Portsmouth, England, UK): On Meri's 10th birthday her father gives her a book, 'The Burgess Bird Book for Children'. For her 11th birthday he gives her, Darwin's 'On The Origin of the Species'. Six months later her father dies leaving both Meri and her mother utterly devastated. At 17 years old Meri leaves her hometown of Pennsylvania and attends Chicago University with a fierce ambition to earn an advanced degree in ornithology. She sits in on one of Professor Whetstone's physics lectures and is completely smitten by this man old enough to be her father. This is what she says about seeing him at that first lecture, ' I was in awe of Alden. I could only sense the very fringes of concepts that his intellect grasped with such easy, ready fingers. I worshipped his knowledge, his aloof independence and greater world experience. He was my teacher; he led me, and I followed gladly.' They embark on an affair fuelled, not by passion or lustful recklessness, but of joint admiration of intellectual minds. They marry and Alden takes her away to Los Alamos, New Mexico.

At the commencement of each chapter there are ornithological terms of reference which cleverly shadow Meri's experiences within the chapter they refer to. The writing style is gently paced, and intelligent, with beautifully constructed sentences and phrases such as,"I watched the first snowfall begin as a light, dry powder and morph into those luscious, fat, lazy flakes that sashay downward and accumulate into weighty drifts." I fell immediately under the authors spell of words and eagerly devoured the pages of the book. In another poignantly beautifully written scene where the crows say farewell to one of their own, I cried as the loss and feeling of loneliness was utterly palpable and I truly believed I understood how Meri was feeling at that particular stage of her life.

The Atomic Weight of Love is primarily a love story written and voiced by Meri about the ever changing, evolving love she feels for Alden, and then in her 40's of her love for a much younger man. I found it in turns to be heartbreaking, and infuriating due to the out dated attitudes of the times, but above all an uplifting read. There is a bittersweet quality to the story and at times it simply broke my heart.

Elizabeth Church's debut novel is an exquisite poignant tale of loyalty, trust and knowing when to let go. I truly hope there's a lot more to come from her as a writer. I'd recommend it for readers who love beautifully written literary historical fiction that will make them question their own sacrifices and accomplishments. I would also suggest it for book group readers as the multitude of topics raised throughout the book could generate some lively discussion.

Reader Review: "I Let You Go"

by Lesley (ENFIELD): This is the most memorable book I've read for a long time. It is so cleverly written. The effect has lingered in my mind, in a fascinating way, since reading it months ago.The locations add interest as they switch from urban to seaside and the author really helps the reader to imagine the protagonist's emotions as she struggles through her situation. It is so visual a story , that, as I read it, I could see a televised drama in front of my eyes. I'm sure it is only a matter of time.

Reader Review: "Birds of a Feather"

by BeckyH (Chicago): A tight plot and likeable characters people this mystery set in post World War I England. Masie is a detective and a psychologist and uses both to solve interesting and informative crimes. This one is no different. Hired to find a runaway daughter, Masie stumbles on a serial killer. Well written, with believable and clearly drawn characters with interesting backgrounds and a spot on sense of time and place, this series gets better as it continues. While the second in the series, there is no need to have read the first before beginning this one. 5 of 5 stars

Reader Review: "A Gentleman in Moscow"

by Sarah (Montana): This is one of my all-time favorite books. The Count is an example of a person who knows how to live life. Despite confinement he loves his adopted family and friends, and finds pleasure in the simple aspects of human existence. History and culture are also abundantly represented in this beautiful novel