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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A Sparkling Biography

The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman's Extraordinary Life in the Business of Death, Decay, and DisasterThe Trauma Cleaner: One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in the Business of Death, Decay, and Disaster by Sarah Krasnostein

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This biography is as illuminating about the biographer as it is of her subject. Sarah Krasnostein lays herself bare many times in this fascinating account of the life (or lives) of Sandra Pankhurst. Sandra reveals little sections of her life story to Krasnostein, forcing her to piece together all the disparate parts, sometimes filling in the blanks with her best guess. As we travel the road of Sandra’s life with her biographer, we get a definite sense of a person who has undergone terrible trauma herself, and now helps other people deal with theirs, in various ways, as her job.
Sandra is the classic unreliable narrator, sometimes choosing not to include details which Krasnostein later uncovers. The fact that any of it leads to an immensely satisfying conclusion is testament to Krasnostein’s easy writing style and willingness to “go with it” when speaking with Sandra; and to Sandra Pankhurst’s dogged determination to keep putting one foot in front of the other, no matter what.
Drawn to this initially because of the professional cleaning aspect (Pankhurst cleans death scenes, crime scenes and hoarders’ houses for a living), I found myself staying because I cared about Sandra, AND because I felt connected to her biographer who, by her own admission, struggles with the task she has set herself in documenting Sandra’s life.
Sandra’s clients help Krasnostein turn a light on her own life and experiences and the book is the richer for it. This is biography at its finest, despite its flaws -and it has plenty.
I can ignore the chinks in its armour, though, because I found this story compelling. I hope lots of other people do too, because as a tale of triumph in the face of overwhelming odds, it is a testament.

Big Money

MunmunMunmun by Jesse Andrews

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Having not read Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, I was not sure what to expect from this Jesse Andrews offering. Having heard a little more about Me and Earl, I am really glad I have not read it yet. This book sounds like a HUGE departure from that one. In the world Andrews has created in MunMun, how much cash you have determines how big you are – literally. The more munmun you have, the more upscale you are. If you have only a few hundred munmuns, you are ten inches tall. if you have 2 million, you are the size of a house or bigger. It is a most disarming premise and difficult to wrap your head around at first. What is clear though is that the smaller people are in peril every day of their lives. Middlepoors and middleriches (the in-between sizes) step on their houses, or worse, their cats eat the Littlepoors. It is a harsh existence and our hero, Warner, and his sister, Prayer, are locked in a struggle to improve their situation by earning more munmuns. Opportunities to do this are limited. The less you have, the less you have access to – and turning to crime, or selling yourself to the bigger citizens feels like the only way to make things change.
This book is a searing satire with is gaze firmly on the USA and the policies of Trump Republicanism. The more is more philosophy of the current presidency, and the willingness to leave the “little guy” behind, despite their beautiful dreams of another life, is to the fore here. The closing scenes of the book are tinged with hope, but only because there is decimation before. I won’t say any more, because I hate spoilers, but this book must be read to be believed. I have never read anything like it, although there are echoes of Gulliver’s Travels in the way the society views those who are not “one of them”. Lots of otherness, lots of things to think about. Definitely worth the effort of bending your mind around this version of the Yewess.

Clear as day

Are You Seeing Me?Are You Seeing Me? by Darren Groth

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“Perry has a brain condition that can cause him to feel anxious or upset in different places and circumstances. He has trouble with people – mixing with them and communicating with them – and sometimes it results in inappropriate behaviours. I appreciate your understanding and patience.”
Perry Richter and his twin sister, Justine, are going on a holiday to Vancouver. Perry is a young man with Asperger-like behaviour and Justine is his principal carer since losing their father to cancer four years earlier. Everywhere they go, whenever they meet new people this is the spiel she gives them in an effort to navigate their way through life’s necessary processes. The trip is a last “fling” before Perry enters Fair Go, an independent living program for people with similar conditions to his. Justine has left her boyfriend, Marc, behind to see how things feel without him – to get some breathing space. Relationships are examined and questioned right through this novel as we see the events unfold from each twin’s points of view. We hear from Perry what he thinks about his sister, earthquakes, sea monsters and their Dad’s passing; Justine tells us about her frustrations with Marc and her love and admiration for her brother and her contempt for the mother who abandoned the family when she and Perry were young.
Justine has arranged for a meeting with her mother, who now resides in Canada. Wanting to reconcile with her children, Leonie is a fragile, guilt-ridden woman who genuinely wants to make amends for fourteen years of radio silence, but Justine is not going to make it easy for her and is determined that Perry will not be hurt. As the novel unfolds, we see Justine is dealing with issues of her own – of control over her own life, of committing to someone other than Perry, and of course about letting Perry find his way. In many ways Perry seems the stronger of the two – because his condition allows him to be removed from “grand” emotional expression.
Perry is a young man of great intelligence who only wants the best for the sister he loves deeply. He knows that she feels obligated to look after him, that he does need someone to help him, but he worries that Justine is losing herself in caring for him all the time. Perry is insightful about other people’s emotions and reactions which enables him to sometimes predict their behaviour – something he says is “only logical” when you look at all the information.
Things come to a head when Perry and his mother have a day together without Justine, and for a moment it seems that all is lost. Everything seems to be turning bad and then a seismic shift of events turns things in a different direction. Earthquake metaphors are used really effectively in this novel – the ground moves under the feet of these characters a few times through the story. The other device Groth uses really well is Perry’s love of action hero Jackie Chan. There is a sequence towards the end of the book (spoilers, so no detail) that is just fantastic. Darren Groth is clearly a Chan fan and he uses it to his advantage really well,
Are You Seeing Me? has a big heart – huge – and it deserves to be read by a wide audience. I look forward to the next book Darren Groth has up his sleeve.
For ages 14 and up.

Shiny, shiny, right there behind me…

The Shiny GuysThe Shiny Guys by Doug MacLeod
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

To echo some other reviewers of this novel – wow. This was not what I was expecting at all. Doug Macleod has penned a very sophisticated and involving story indeed. I was totally captured by the story of Colin Lapsley and the “shiny guys”.
The setting is a psychiatric hospital in 1985 and Colin is seeing things no-one else sees (shiny guys) on the periphery of his vision. His parents have hospitalised him following a family tragedy and little by little we learn about how Colin came to be where he is. Colin’s friend, Mango, has his own set of problems that mainly centre on him randomly hugging people and not letting go. It doesn’t bother Colin. Eventually Mango calms down and lets go. Then Anthea shows up. Reserved and focused on shooting 100 netball goals a day, she is drawn into Colin and Mango’s circle.
Colin is an eloquent and clever narrator and at times you start to wonder if the shiny guys are real – he certainly believes they are.
Bit by bit we learn more and more of Colin’s story, and those of Mango and Anthea. My heart cried a little bit at each revelation, as I further understood how these things had come to be.
I won’t post spoilers, as is my policy, but as I read the last pages over breakfast this morning and then reached the end, there was slamming of the book on the table and lots of “WHAT? Seriously? Aaargh!” from me. I will be interested in hearing comments about that ending from others. I loved and hated that ending simultaneously.
I can’t wait to see where Doug Macleod goes from here, because The Shiny Guys is brilliant.
Recommended for ages 14 and up.

A Resounding Hallelujah from Me!

The Reluctant HallelujahThe Reluctant Hallelujah by Gabrielle Williams
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of my top reads for 2013. I just loved this book. Gabrielle Willams has created the ultimate road trip novel here. I am not sure this can be topped!
Dodie Farnshaw and her younger sister Coco live an average life, in an average Melbourne suburb, with their average parents. Things change quickly when Mr and Mrs Farnshaw disappear without a trace. When Dodie is approached by Enron, a boy at school she barely knows, and he says her mum and dad were watching over something for the Church and that is why they are missing, Dodie thinks he has a screw loose. However, Enron convinces her to look to for the key he says is in her house and find the basement he claims is there. Dodie does these things not expecting to find anything, but is shocked to actually locate the key and the entrance to the basement. What they find there is, quite simply, life-changing. (No spoilers). Now Dodie, Coco, Enron and two guys she has only just met are setting off for Sydney on a road trip of mind-blowing importance. Driving unlicenced, Dodie and her entourage are chased by the police, nameless bad guys and even manages some romance on the way. One big secret, one big adventure.
This entertaining novel is a delight full of humour, gravity, excitement and heart-break. I heartily recommend this to everyone from 13 to 93. I might just read it a second time because it was THAT MUCH FUN!