A Riotous Romp

The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue (Montague Siblings, #1)The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a corker. A fun romp with the dissolute and self-centred Monty and his faithful and close confidante, Percy. Along for the ride is Monty’s sister Felicity who is not your average Regency chick. After embarking on their Grand Tour, things go horribly awry for Monty and his party when he decides, out of spite, to pilfer a small box from the home of a French Minister, the Duke of Bourbon. Their trip turns into a daring and breathless chase across France, Spain and Italy as they are robbed, kidnapped and enlisted as pirates along the way.
Monty and Percy are developing a close relationship, closer than society would like and, to make things even more complicated, Percy reveals he is epileptic – an affliction that will see him thrown into an asylum.
Lee maintains a good narrative pace, and the characters are engaging and likeable. The historical details feel accurate and cover a wide variety of issues of the period. Of particular interest are the treatment of black people such as Percy, and conventions around the roles of women such as Felicity. Monty is the lens the reader sees these things through, and he learns as we learn.
Heartily recommended for ages 14 and up.

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Riding the rails to freedom

The Underground RailroadThe Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book was not what I expected. The Underground Railroad here is represented by an actual, rails and sleepers, railroad that moves through an impossible series of tunnels spiriting runaway slaves away to lives away from servitude and abuse. Told mostly through the eyes of Cora, the daughter of a slave, who wants more for herself than her masters will ever give. Cora’s road to freedom is a difficult and harsh one, and there are no punches pulled in Whitehead’s depiction of the slaves’ existence. Constantly referred to as “it”, and treated as chattel, the life of Cora and her friends Lovey and Caesar are horrendous. Ultimately there are signs of humanity amidst the carnage but, as it was no doubt in reality, these are rare and short-lived.
The Underground Railroad is a tale that keeps you reading, even though you know things are not going to improve quickly for the protagonists. The slave catcher, Ridgeway, is also compelling because he represents and exemplifies the mindset that allowed the vile slave trade to prosper in the Southern states of the newly independent nation.
Read it to see why it deserved the Pulitzer in 2017.

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A mark on the heart

The Tattooist of AuschwitzThe Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This account of a Jew forced to mark other Jews as they entered the infamous concentration camp at Auschwitz is one that is deeply affecting. Lale surrenders himself to save his family who live in a ghetto in Czechoslovakia in 1942. He finds himself transported in harrowing conditions to an even more harrowing desintation – Auschwitz. There is much darkness here in this novelised story of Lale’s experiences, but there is also radiant light too. His love for Gita, a woman he falls hard for, sustains and drives him to survive at any cost. Lale becomes a scrounger for the camp – bringing extra food to many prisoners, and making shady deals that are dangerous and vital. The most chilling passages concern the introduction of the crematoriums into the camps, and the descriptions of the clouds of ash raining down remind you of just how barbaric this period in history was. Morris’s style makes for an easy read – meaning that the prose is flowing and natural. nothing flowery, but everything is powerful.
A tale of love, hardship and survival; this novel will force you to turn the page to discover the fate of all the main players. No spoilers here, except to say that all are now dead and gone and I wonder to myself what Lale would make of Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers in the camps on Manus Island and Nauru. Would he see them as any different to the camp he was condemned to?
Plenty to reflect on, and wonderful writing to enjoy.

The most annoying protag ever

Olmec Obituary (Dr Pimms, Intermillennial Sleuth, #1)Olmec Obituary by L.J.M. Owen

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Review copy supplied by publisher in exchange for a fair review.

When I was first contacted about possibly reviewing this book, I was excited by the prospect of the central character. Not only is she an archaeologist and expert in paeleogenetics, but she is a librarian too! As a librarian myself, this book was high on my TBR pile. What a shame it didn’t live up to my expectations.
Dr Elizabeth Pimms is called back from a dream dig in Egypt to attend the funeral of her beloved father in Canberra, her home town. She leaves her boyfriend, Luke, behind and ends up having to stay in Australia to help support her quirky family so they can afford to pay for her brother Matty’s surgery. She completes a post graduate library qualification and starts work at the National Library to work on old maps. Along the way, she makes friends with Nathan (my favourite character in the book) and an enemy of a woman named Mai – who takes an instant dislike to her.
Elizabeth is asked by an old archaeology classmate to do some work on identifying and classifying some bones from a dig in Mexico – from an Olmec cemetery.
Throw in underlying guilt and blame from the car crash that killed their mother (and left Matty unable to walk) years earlier, a boiling conflict with a bratty sister and a family home that sounds like a cross between Hogwarts and the Brady Bunch and you would think I would find this an enjoyable read.
I did not. I really wanted to like Elizabeth, but I found her incredibly annoying. She is quick to pass judgement, remarkably naive and pretty conceited. Her family treats her like a princess, and not in a good way. I found myself yelling at this book several times as I read it – saying “Just take CONTROL of your life, you wimp!” For someone so accomplished, her character is infuriatingly skittish and lacks confidence. It drove me crazy. Her friends, Nathan, and philologist Henry are far more appealing and just as quirky, but somehow they both have their lives sorted out. I just got so impatient with Lizzie. She is only 26 years old in the book, so she is still quite young, but everyone around her, including her younger brother, just seems to have a better handle on life.
The reason for my frustration might stem from the fact that Owen really locks in some librarian/academic woman stereotypes with Lizzie. She lives at home with her parents, she has 4 cats, she is a librarian, she’s a bit of a loner, she likes correcting everyone. L.J.M. even makes her a literary snob. When Elizabeth works on the customer service desk in the Library, a teenage girl asks for a copy of the latest vampire novel (we are led to believe it is Twilight or something similar). Elizabeth actually asks herself:

“…was it right to be complicit in people reading nonsense when better books were so readily available?”

How dare she? How dare L.J.M. Owen diss “popular” fiction like that? I mean, I don’t like Twilight myself, but if someone wants to read it, more power to them! Especially a teenage girl! Things like this constantly frustrated me about this character. By far the worst thing, though, is Elizabeth and her phrenic library. I assumed this was a device used by Elizabeth to aid her eidetic memory, but there was not explanation of what it was or how it worked until the very end of the novel. There was not even a reference at the end of the book (with all the recipes and other paraphenalia) with a working definition! For someone who is a librarian, the author dropped the ball here.
Leaving Elizabeth aside, there are other things I find appealing about this book. Firstly, the flashbacks to the Olmec period are great – loved the painting of the story behind the bones. Secondly, the mystery of the bones and why some evidence doesn’t add up (the mystery) is also great- I really enjoyed the progress of that part of the story. Nathan, Elizabeth’s colleague at the Library, is a sweetheart – a bit of a fantasy librarian in many ways. He’s funny, smart, sensitive, loves cats and I think is a little bit in love with Elizabeth – though nothing happens between them except friendship in this novel.
I am now reading Mayan Mendacity to see if Elizabeth can win me over. The rest of her family, and the support cast have – now she has to step up and show me she is more than the stereotype, that she can break away from it. I really want her and Nathan to become flatmates. Fingers crossed…review to follow soon.

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Simply, marvellous

The MarvelsThe Marvels by Brian Selznick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Brian Selznick won many hearts and minds with his modern children’s classic, The Invention of Hugo Cabret. His unique combination of words and images was a winner, and it was beautifully realised in Scorsese’s film. Hugo. The Marvels is set to become another classic and I sincerely hope someone is looking to film this story for the big screen.
The story begins with images, almost 400 pages of them, and they are magical. Beautifully rendered pencil drawings tell the remarkable history of the Marvel family, from 1766 to 1900. Beginning with Billy Marvel, who survives a shipwreck on the ill-fated Kraken, the tale of a family closely tied to the stage unfolds. Images of angels and fire combine to weave a tale of triumph and tragedy, and a family whose lives truly reflect their surname.
Almost 100 years after the last picture in the story, Joseph Jervis runs away from school and turns up on the doorstep of his uncle, whom he has never met, the enchantingly named Alfred Nightingale. Alfred’s house is a time capsule, held fast in the early twentieth century, and it is clear he wants nothing to do with Joseph or his family. He begrudgingly allows Joseph to stay because his parents can’t be contacted, and Joseph sets out to discover more about his family’s past.
Joseph befriends Frankie, who assists him on his quest to unravel the mystery that is the Marvels, and how they related to his family. As they work their way through clues found in Albert’s house, and at the Royal Theatre where an ethereal painting of an angel adorns the ceiling, the story of the Marvels is pieced together and takes the two friends in a direction neither of them ever expected. The truth, it seems, in stranger than fiction. This is a fantastic story filled with historical detail, visual clues and hints, and engaging supporting characters. I particularly liked Florent, the Frenchman who has known Albert for many years and who makes it his business to watch over Joseph as he gets to know his grumpy, sullen uncle, and Frankie, the feisty, no-holds-barred girl who helps Joseph discover the truth about his family. Selznick has the enviable ability to show a great deal in just one drawing – sometimes more than a whole page of text can show.
Revelations, explanations and emotions collide as the novel moves to its satisfying conclusion. Once the written story is told, Selznick presents another, shorter, picture story to take us to the present day. It is a fitting end to a moving and entertaining narrative.

Heartily recommended for readers aged 8 and up.

This Door Leads to Mystery and Adventure

The Door That Led to WhereThe Door That Led to Where by Sally Gardner

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Firstly, let me admit that I had not read anything by Sally Gardner before this book. Secondly, I ask myself the question : why did I leave it this long?
The Door That Led to Where is fabulous. A time-slip/mystery/friendship/fantasy/realist novel that defies being categorised (obviously), and holds the reader right to the very end. Gardner’s characters are top-notch. You become invested in them without even noticing it is happening – until you read the last few pages with tears in your eyes.
AJ and his mates, Slim and Leon, are as close as brothers, and they are always in some kind of trouble. When AJ’s mum manages to get him an interview for a baby clerk position at a law firm she used to clean for, it seems that AJ’s life might finally be turning around.
And turn around it does, but in ways that AJ could not possibly have imagined. It is revealed early on that AJ is a Dickens aficionado, and this certainly helps him to navigate 19th century London when he unlocks “the door” of the title. He revels in the new environment and becomes deeply involved in the goings on, on the other side of the door.
There are mysteries to be solved – on both side of the door – where is Leon? What happened to AJ’s father, who was the previous holder of the key to the door? What is Mr Baldwin, a partner in the law firm AJ works for, up to?
Added to all this is the wonderful relationship AJ has with “Auntie Elsie” who lives in the same block of flats as AJ and his family. When he leaves the family flat because he can no longer stand living with his mother, Elsie becomes a grandmother figure and they look after one another. I loved this relationship and seeing it develop. The story straddles the two time zones really well – in a believable way (at least for me) – and never gets bogged down in the scientific “jargon” that so often accompanies a story like this one. Whilst it is definitely rooted in the 21st century, this is really, in essence, a mystery story that just happens to span 150 years. AJ, Slim and Leon become different people as the story progresses (or become who they were meant to be) – and they way the three end up really sat well with me. I am hoping there may be a second book in the works as there were a couple of loose ends not tied up – I think this could be a really engaging series if that was to happen.
Because there is some swearing in the text, I would say this is recommended for ages 14 and up, but if you have a mature reader who would cope with some fruity language as part of the plot (not gratuitous) I would say 12 and up. Now, to find the next Sally Gardner to read!