American Fiction

Between the Lines – Jodi Picoult and Samantha Van Leer

Posted in American Fiction, Children's Books, Proofs on April 28th, 2012 by admin – 2 Comments

Between the Lines


Hodder & Stoughton Ltd

My Rating3.5 stars (for pre-teens)

I was intrigued when I first heard about Between the Lines, a collaboration between Jodi Picoult and her sixteen year old daughter, Samantha, aimed at a younger audience.   Equally attractive was the idea of fictional characters coming to life, a theme which I loved in Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart trilogy and Jasper Fforde’s madcap Thursday Next series.  I was also keen to see if this would be good enough to join the likes of Cornelia Funke, Sally Gardner and Michelle Harrison and other great writers on my ever expanding TBR pile of future reads for my daughter.

This is quite a light-hearted read with touches of humour along the way.  Fifteen year old Delilah is not a typical teenager and her efforts to fit in with her peers usually end up in disaster.  Instead of dating in real life, she spends her time immersed in reading her favourite fairy tale, wishing and hoping that she could meet someone just like the fictional hero, Prince Oliver.  Well, in this case, wishes do come true but if only the “happily ever after” was as easily attainable – the barrier between fiction and reality is thicker than paper and Delilah has the difficult task of convincing her mother that she isn’t certifiable when she stays cocooned in her room, talking to fictional characters.

Jodi Picoult’s trademark style of multiple narration is at play here with three separate narrative strands each in a different font, Delilah’s story, Oliver’s story and the actual text of the fairytale, Between the Lines.   The pencil and silhouette illustrations are exquisite and really complement the whole notion of stories as living, breathing entities with characters climbing up the margins and objects made of actual words.

This is a clever, wholesome romance probably best suited for the pre-teen reader as older readers might prefer a bit more bite (not always of the vampire sort!) to their reading consumption.  Not as dark as the Inkheart trilogy, it will appeal to fans of The Princess Bride and The Neverending Story

Jodi and Samantha

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A Land More Kind Than Home – Wiley Cash

Posted in American Fiction on January 23rd, 2012 by admin – 2 Comments

A Land More Kind Than Home

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday (29 Mar 2012)
  • Born in North Carolina, raised in an evangelical church, Wiley Cash draws on his own personal experiences to produce this impressive debut novel.  

    One Sunday, in the oppressive Summer heat, the congregation of River Road Church take their religious fervour one step too far with devastating consequences.  This compelling story, set in Madison County in 1986, is narrated from the perspectives of three different characters – Jess Hall, nine year old brother to Christopher “Stump” whose autism hinders any verbal communication,  Clem Barefield, Sheriff of Madison County for 25 years yet still considered an outsider and finally, Adelaide Lyle, elderly spinster who leads the Sunday School yet remains wary of the Pastor, Carson Chambliss.

    Chambliss is a very shady character, one of those larger than life, mesmerizing preachers who rules his ingenuous congregation with a rod of iron as well as traumatising them with snakes, poison and fire – blind faith indeed…  This may be the 80s but this could be the land that time forgot.   There’s a great sense of place as the narrative moves from present to past and back again, evoking the seasons and landscape of this timeless setting.   The author also seems very much in tune with his characters, ordinary, down to earth folk who try to get by the best they can – with perhaps one glaring exception.

    If you enjoy well told stories with that languid, laconic vibe you find in the best Southern fiction, you will relish this gripping, poignant tale.   Looking forward to hearing more from Madison County in Wiley Cash’s future novels.

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    The Peach Keeper – Sarah Addison Allen

    Posted in American Fiction on October 31st, 2011 by admin – 5 Comments

    The Peach Keeper

    Sarah Addison Allen is such a gifted storyteller and I have really enjoyed her previous novels, especially “Garden Spells”. “The Peach Keeper” is equally enchanting and delicious – a perfect antidote to dreary wintry weather.

    Again, the female characters take centre stage – Willa and Paxton, on the surface successful, independent young woman but dig a little deeper and you’ll find palpable sadness. Their male counterparts, Colin and Stephen, are very easy on the eye but they also need a bit of a nudge/enchantment and there is plenty of magic at work in Wall of Waters.

    Our diametrically opposed leading ladies are thrown together when a secret is unearthed, literally, threatening the aura of perfection propagated by local socialites.

    Yes, at times it’s a tad predictable, but who cares when it’s written so beautifully and you’re momentarily drawn into such a bewitching world far from the mundanity of reality. Also, good news for my hips…there’s less talk of cake and more of coffee plus a delightful cameo appearance by Claire Waverly who we first met in “Garden Spells”.

    With echoes of Fannie Flagg and Alice Hoffman, Sarah Addison Allen has served up another scrumptious dish which will satisfy readers with its homely, feel good vibe. I’m already looking forward to the next course!

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    Don’t Let Me Go – Catherine Ryan Hyde

    Posted in American Fiction, Contemporary Fiction on October 12th, 2011 by admin – 1 Comment

    Don’t Let Me Go is set in LA, where 10 year old Grace lives with her drug addict mum in a run down area.  The inhabitants of her appartment block are folk who keep themselves to themselves, not wishing to engage in a neighbourly way (par for the course these days!).  When Grace is in danger of being taken into care, she decides to enlist the help of this motley crew to get her mum clean but how can she break down emotional barriers which her neighbours have taken a lifetime to build?

    This book really surprised me as I initially thought I’d find it too saccharine – lilac coloured covers tend to influence me, in a negative way!   I also thought that Grace would be an overbearing, irritating character who would drive me mad.  So much for first impressions….within a few pages, I was hooked and dragged headfirst into the story.  Each and every character is fully fleshed and each one has their own foibles and flaws, just like the rest of us.  It’s more than the story of Grace and her crusade, it’s about their own personal battles.  Billy Shine, reclusive on a par with Howard Hughes, gradually emerges from his shell.   Rayleen, who has had her own history with child protection, knows that she and her neighbours are Grace’s last hope but it won’t be an easy ride.

    Don’t Let Me Go is an extremely readable, colourful, feel-good tale which will give you a warm, fuzzy feeling inside without overdosing on the twee factor.  A perfect antidote to the dark Autumn evenings!

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    Blessings – Anna Quindlen

    Posted in American Fiction on September 13th, 2011 by admin – 2 Comments

    Having read and thoroughly enjoyed “Every Last One” by Anna Quindlen earlier this year, I was keen to investigate her back catalogue and I began this week with “Blessings”, published in 2003. 

    Blessings is the name of the estate where Lydia Blessing, an elderly widow, leads the life of a semi-recluse with occasional interruptions by her curmudgeonly cook, Nadine and ex-con caretaker, Skip Cuddy.  The status quo is broken by the unexpected arrival of an abandoned new-born baby girl, left on the steps of the garage where she is found by Skip. 

    Anna Quindlen has a very sedate style of writing, quietly building up  the story, feeding the reader snippets from the past.  Her descriptions of the landscape are truly exquisite, focussing on every detail so you live and breathe the ambiance of Blessings, this once palatial home, now fading like its owner.  Lydia is the archetypal crabbid old woman, brought up with high standards but the hard edges are gradually softened with the arrival of baby Faith.  Likewise, Skip, the young handyman, discovers strengths and emotions he never knew he possessed.

    Whilst it’s obvious that Anna Quindlen is a very fine writer, Blessings didn’t quite hit the spot for me – yes, I liked it but at times it didn’t fully engage me.  Lydia’s frequent mulling over past events in the midst of the present narrative was very distracting and it made the storyline clunky in the extreme.   3 stars from me for a quite enjoyable, relatively short read.

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    The Family Fang – Kevin Wilson

    Posted in American Fiction, Contemporary Fiction, Proofs on September 9th, 2011 by admin – 1 Comment

    I do like a bit of quirkiness in my reading every now and then so I looked forward to getting my teeth (sorry!) into  ”The Family Fang”, the story of Caleb and Camille Fang and their children Annie and Buster aka Child A and Child B.   The children are now adults, trying to find their way in the real world, Annie as an actress and Buster as an author, but when their lives reach crisis point they have nowhere else to turn but back to the heart of their dysfunctional family.

    The novel focuses on Annie and Buster’s current problems and their much dreaded reunion with their parents but this is interspersed with accounts of the Fang family’s past performance art including staged events at shopping malls designed to shock and awe the unwitting shoppers.  I found these episodes simultaneously hilarious and horrific, laughing at the weirdness of it all but feeling quite uncomfortable at how the children were used as unwitting pawns, all for the sake of art. 

    Whilst Annie and Buster come across as fully formed, credible characters (despite their inauspicious beginnings), I was slightly disappointed by the portrayal of their parents who rarely depart from caricature mode.  Yes they are weird and surreal and I get that they strive to maintain their enigmatic aura but I would have preferred more insight into their motivation.  Having said that, I did enjoy this darkly comedic tale of family relationships.  If you liked   The Royal Tenenbaums then you will feel right at home with the freaky Fang family.

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    The Borrower – Rebecca Makkai

    Posted in American Fiction, Contemporary Fiction on August 22nd, 2011 by admin – 3 Comments

    This debut novel has all the ingredients which usually make a book irresistible for me – take one children’s librarian, add one ten year old boy who loves the books his God fearing parents hate, stir in a road trip and sprinkle with references to classic children’s literature and voila….well, unfortunately the result was more of a sunken souffle for me. 

    The story opens well with our narrator, Lucy Hull, a young children’s librarian in Hannibal, Missouri, taking an interest in the well-being of her most regular customer, 10 year old Ian Drake.  In the course of guiding this avid reader towards the best of children’s literature, Lucy discovers that Ian’s very religious mother has enrolled him in anti-gay classes run by Pastor Bob.  Her hand is forced when she discovers Ian camping out in the library and they find themselves on the run in an eventful road trip from Missouri to Vermont.

    There is some confusion as to who has “abducted” who.  Ian is the arch-manipulator, playing Lucy in the way a child can, turning on the tears, changing the subject but Lucy is so easily “played” she lost all credibility for me.  There are lots of weird and wonderful characters including Lucy’s Russian immigrant father with his shady past and plenty of amusing incidents from ferrets to the sinister figure who stalks Lucy and Ian.

    Although it has glimmers of brilliance, The Borrower, left me unsatisfied and slightly disappointed.  I felt left behind and didn’t feel any real connection with any of the characters.  It seems to be a marmite book though and will provide plenty of discussion for book groups.

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    The Sisters Brothers – Patrick deWitt

    Posted in American Fiction, Literary Prizes on August 7th, 2011 by admin – 8 Comments

    I first heard about The Sisters Brothers when it recently made it onto the Man Booker Longlist – perversely enough, it was all the mutterings about it not being a suitable nominee plus some irresistible cover lust which made me even keener to read it.

    Firstly, a word of warning…this is not a pretty novel, it’s set back in the 1850s during the California Gold Rush when men were men and horses didn’t have whisperers.  There are scenes of cruelty, to both animals and humans,  so best to move on if this would detract from your reading enjoyment.

    It is 1851, the Californian Gold Rush is in full swing and our narrator, Eli Sisters, hired killer, is accompanying his older brother Charlie on an eventful journey from Oregon to Sacramento, to track down and kill one Hermann Kermit Warm.  Their quest has an epic feel to it as they encounter a range of wild and wonderful characters en route, think Don Quixote meets the Coen and Blues Brothers with a dash of Cormac Mc Carthy thrown in for good measure.  Yet, it doesn’t seem derivative and ends up being a really fresh, original piece of work – defying categorisation.

    Eli is a psychopath with a (slight) conscience and therein lies the conflict between the brothers.  Even as he relates their latest killing in his usual deadpan tone, you know his heart is no longer in it and he longs for a different life, even suggesting opening a store – Charlie is not particularly open to the idea…  Their story is compelling but unsettling, dark but humorous and so cinematic, you can just visualise their adventures rolling onto the big screen.

    A very special novel which will entertain a wide range of readers including those biblio-butterflies who like a change of genre every now and then.

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    The Homecoming of Samuel Lake – Jenny Wingfield

    Posted in American Fiction on June 26th, 2011 by admin – 2 Comments

    The Homecoming of Samuel Lake is the debut novel of Jenny Wingfield, an accomplished screenwriter, and it is evident from the very first pages that she is a very talented writer and storyteller.

    Set in the 1950s in Arkansas in the deep South of the US, our story begins with the sudden death of John Moses and ends with another death with a good sprinkling of violent episodes in between.  Samuel Lake is a preacher without a congregation, his unique style not making him a favourite amongst traditional pastors, so he and his family return to the homestead of his wife, Willadee (nee Moses) hoping to start afresh.   What ensues is an intriguing tale of a family in a state of flux and it isn’t until the final page that the reader discovers if Samuel’s unswerving faith in God is indeed well placed.

    I really enjoyed this family saga with its fast paced narrative and its varied canvas of characters.  Most of the characters have rather bizarre names including Swan Lake, Samuel’s feisty 12 year old daughter, his sons, Noble and Bienville, brother-in-law Toy (6 foot 4!), sister-in-law Nicey and neighbour’s children, Blade and Blue.   Amidst the tragedy of every day life there is bitter sweet comedy – the Moses house has a grocery store at the front porch, open from dawn to dusk and a bar at the back open from dusk to dawn.  You get a real feel for this quirky, rural setting where folk might not exactly break the law but they can certainly bend it!  If you enjoy novels from Fannie Flagg or Sue Monk Kidd you’ll feel right at home with Samuel Lake.

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