Category Archives: Reviews

Across the Mekong River

Across the Mekong River is the story of a refugee family from Laos, who had to flee to the refugee camps in Thailand when the Vietnam war ended. The Communist regime hunted down their own people and killed those who fought on the side of the Americans. It is only thanks to their sponsorship by an American soldier that the family are permitted to resettle in America.

The story centres on daughter Nao’s struggles to bridge two opposing cultures. Her Hmong family believe women are subservient to men, whereas all Nao wants to do is to go to college and lead an independent life. Nao so desperately wants to fit in at school she calls herself Laura and hides this from her parents.

It is not exclusively written from Nao’s point-of-view as author Elaine Russell gives a voice to Nao’s mother Yer and her father Pao. Yer’s tale is of a paradise lost. Her beautiful homeland – a land of ‘gentle streams and green forests, ‘ has been invaded by a succession of foreigners – Thai, Khmer, French then Japanese. Pao, the patriarch in the family, left his fields to take up arms against the communists in the Vietnam War.

Nao, Pao and Yer are convincing characters who speak believable dialogue. Written in a compelling and convincing style, the author gives voice to all those displaced people who find themselves adrift in a newly adopted homeland, struggling to adapt to a new language and culture. Across the Mekong River is really the story of America.

Before I Go to Sleep

Billed as a worldwide best-seller, Before I Go to Sleep had a lot to live up to. I was curious to understand why this book was so over-hyped and why it was considered to be worth developing as a film. The high concept amnesia plot element must have made it sufficiently commercial to warrant the attention of the film industry, but Memento it is not.

I was unable to suspend my disbelief at the plot flaws (of which there are many). It does rather insult the reader’s intelligence, especially those in the UK where the book is set. In other countries where you have to pay for healthcare, I suppose a former patient like Christine could get lost in the system, but in Britain we have the NHS. For a start, nobody leaving a secure unit would be discharged without an identity check on the caregiver: there would be a series of follow-ups and the patient’s GP would be integral to that care. Christine’s psychiatrist, Dr Nash displays a worrying lack of professionalism that at times made me want to give up on the book.

Christine is, of course, an unreliable narrator by the nature of her condition and we only see the other characters through her eyes. Someone that self-absorbed has no way to make light of her situation and although I felt sorry for her situation she didn’t really engage me as a character. I also found the amount of repetition tedious. Although billed as a psychological thriller, the middle section of the book lacked sufficient plot twists and turns and the only thrilling element kicked in at the end.

Not a bad effort for a first novel, but I’m still left scratching my head as to why this book gained so much attention. I received a free copy as part of the film tie-in promotion.

The Luminaries – It’s All in the Stars

The Luminaries – set in the era of the New Zealand gold rush is a great sprawling epic of a murder mystery, written by a dazzlingly talented, contemporary writer in the style of a Victorian novel.

I had a vested interest in finishing this book as Catton is writing about the history of the country I grew up in, a country that was settled by immigrants to a New World of which I (and the author) was one.

There is so much to admire in this hugely ambitious book, not least the complex structure. As the astrology is the key to understanding the overall circular structure, each of the twelve parts is prefaced by an astrological chart. At at the start of the book a character chart highlights the personality types in each sign of the zodiac. Then there is the interplay between the astrological chart with its twelve signs of the zodiac and the structure of the twelve parts themselves. Each one is half the length of the preceding one until the last chapter is barely more than a few paragraphs long.

The Luminaries is beautifully written and Catton has a sly sense of humour, particularly in her use of language that mimics the style of Wilkie Collins and Dickens. However, where Catton and Dickens do differ is in terms of characterisation. I was determined to finish this book, but by the time I’d read 75% of the book my favourite character had been killed off. And I realised that even by this late stage of the book I had very little emotional connection to the remaining characters. There were one or two I felt sorry for, but that’s different from actively wanting to find out what happens to them.

And then I had a moment of realisation as I thought about that circular structure. That must mean then that there wasn’t necessarily going to be a resolution. It turned out that I was right as I and many other readers were left with many unanswered questions. This, of course, may have been intentional. I’m afraid though that because I invested so much time reading this book, this unfinished business left me feeling rather let down. I did push on and finish it but didn’t feel at all moved by the end or indeed did I take away any deep or lasting themes.

Although I suspect this book, which has won a host of literary awards, will go on to be studied as an example of A Great New Zealand Novel, for me it was a four star rather than a five star read.

So What if it’s a Three Star Review?

Readers’ Favourite is a US site. I can tell that the reviewer has read the story thoroughly. And I’ll fully admit that Fractured is short – (it is a short story after all…). In short, we’re grateful that the reviewer took the time to review….

Reviewed By Heather Osborne for Readers’ Favorite

I chose your prequel short story “Fractured” to review on behalf of Readers’ Favorite. Let me start by saying that I understand this is meant to set up your novel “Revolution Earth” and I have taken that into consideration while writing this review. Upon beginning my read, I found myself confused when it came to some of the terminology. I would have liked to see you define terms that may not be familiar to every reader, such as “fracking.” I had to go to my dictionary to figure out what the term meant. I also felt thrown into a story that I knew very little about. I could not relate to either Jonie or Cara because I did not know enough about them in regards to what role they might play in the subsequent novel.

I believe that in a prequel, you should set the stage for the novel. I did not feel that this short story made me want to find out more or read the novel. As a reader, I felt a bit dissatisfied with the story. What I would have liked was more description, a better understanding of Jonie and Cara’s relationship, and what Tariq’s involvement was in the fracking industry as a simple courier company owner. Overall, I think the story needs a bit of work before it can be adequately called a prequel. I hope you will take my criticisms constructively and perhaps look at making some changes so the story is more palatable to the reader.
Awarded Three stars

We are all Completely Beside Ourselves

This book, so movingly written, challenges our notion of what it means to be human. Karen Joy Fowler is a keen observer of the nuances and details of human behaviour that brings characters to life, that makes this book very difficult to put down. And once it’s over, it feels like a wrench to have to let it go. And if a book can do that, then that is a remarkable achievement. Her research, particularly on the sociology of the family is meticulous, but her touch is so light that you hardly notice that it’s there.

A lesser writer might have been tempted to go overboard with the weighty subject matter, but Karen Joy Fowler is at times achingly witty, which adds the much-needed contrast to the tone. Here she is, describing the grandparents:
‘Grandma Donna was a great reader of historical biographies and had a particular soft spot for the Tudors, where marital discord was an extreme sport.’

I can’t wait to read another book by this author.

From a Distance by Raffaella Barker

My hardback review copy of Raffaella Barker’s latest novel From a Distance (released May 2014) came courtesy of a Goodreads giveaway. And what a beautifully packaged book it is too. David Mann’s jacket designs are gorgeous and this one is no exception.

From a Distance has two parallel stories. The first starts in 1946 when returning soldier Michael gets off his ship in Southampton and instead of turning right to go home to Norfolk, where his parents and unexciting girlfriend Janey are waiting, decides he can’t face life with them yet and turns left to Cornwall.

The contemporary story is told from two different points of view – the first is Luisa’s and the second is Kit’s. A mother of three, Luisa is consumed by her busy domestic life at Green Farm House. She worries about her eldest daughter who has flown the nest on a gap year. A gap year? On a teacher’s salary when a three year degree now costs £27,000?

Luisa is half Italian and descended from a family whose business was ice-cream. Since her eldest left home she’s been busy working on a food start-up, resurrecting the family ice-cream business. And it is the foodie descriptions of making ice-cream which I enjoyed the most about this book, and where I felt that the writer really lets rip describing these pleasures. Food, it seems, is Luisa’s substitute for a satisfying love life.

Her teacher husband, Tom seems distant and busy with work. His pet name for Luisa is Tod and he pats her on the shoulder and says stuff like, ‘good effort, Tod,’ No wonder she’s interested when Kit from Cornwall walks into her life.

Kit runs a successful textile business and has been so busy with work that he’s had no time for love since his wife died. His mother left him a lighthouse in Norfolk, tenanted and taken care of by a lawyer. He’s been too busy (and presumably wealthy enough) until now to bother to even go look at his new holiday home. Lucky old Kit.

This book is beautifully written with lovely descriptions and details yet is let down by characters who don’t seem to have any flaws and there are occasional weaknesses in some of the dialogue too. The pace of the two stories is too slow and I skipped some of the more introspective parts of the historical story in the first half. It was either that, or give up and it isn’t until the last third that there is any real momentum to the story.

When Luisa and Kit meet at the lighthouse the meeting seems forced. Luisa catches Kit talking to the trespassing sheep and for some strange reason, ‘he decided to call them all Virginia.’ And then he starts to talk to one and introduces himself with a ‘do you like it here, Virginia?’ Most women would have beaten a hasty retreat by now, but Luisa isn’t so easily put off. There is a lot of banter in this scene with dialogue that is both clumsy and awkward. There are only so many gags you can make about trespassing sheep and there is little here that drives the story or reveals character, which I found irritating.

There are a number of references to Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Kit’s mother had an inscribed copy, the inscription which reads: ‘I still dream of you.’ Kit has never read the book ‘and probably wouldn’t do now, he’d never been keen on those novels about nothing much.’ And of course there’s the lighthouse on the book cover, with its potent sexual imagery. And for some odd reason Luisa too has a sudden thought about Virginia Woolf when trying to balance a toy lighthouse on one of her showstopper desserts at Kit’s housewarming.

While I bought into Luisa’s life I found it harder to be convinced by some of Michael’s introspection in the post-war story. Some of his concerns seem to be rather too 21st century for a returning soldier. Michael’s love interest in Cornwall is fabric designer Felicity. Michael frets that he doesn’t belong in that world of the artists’ community but the trouble is I am none the wiser what that world was from this novel. Michael is happy with his life with Felicity and when his son is born his life should be complete. Yet it is at this point he decides it’s now time to go back to his old life in Norfolk, a motivation, which I don’t really comprehend. So he abandons his son, which his girlfriend accepts without so much as a murmur, yet alone a demand for financial support and Michael returns to Janey and has two children with her. Janey too is the forgiving sort and lets Michael off the hook by telling him he doesn’t need to tell her what he’s been up to in Cornwall.

In the contemporary story, Luisa and Kit continue to flirt by text message as Luisa by now has the hots for her new neighbour and him with her. Luisa frocks up in her most revealing dress and they dance together at Kit’s housewarming party while Tom, Luisa’s husband barely notices.

But the big reveal of the story means it’s impossible for these two to be together, which is a big let down. This is, after all, Middle England. Luisa has to put her sexuality away and button up her cardigan and go back to making different flavours of ice-cream. Yet it was Luisa herself who tells us, ‘today, Luisa found she was suffused with a gnawing regret for the things she had never done. She hadn’t ridden a motorbike, she hadn’t lived in another country, and she hadn’t kissed the wrong man.’ You just wish she had.