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Saturday, November 30, 2013

'Wild Justice' Nadia Stafford #3 by Kelley Armstrong

 Received from the Publisher

From the BLURB:

Wild Justice: the dramatic finale to the Nadia Stafford trilogy.

Ex-cop Nadia Stafford has a dark secret. After taking the law into her own hands she was kicked off the force. . . and entered the shadowy world of guns for hire. She has her own strict code - works only for one crime family, only kills the really bad guys. But when a hit goes tragically wrong, Nadia is devastated. Is it time to leave the business for good?

Before she has time to decide, Nadia discovers that her own life is under threat. And worse - that terrifying events from her past may have triggered the attacks. With the help of Jack, her enigmatic mentor, Nadia is forced to upon a dark path - towards the truth and towards her final destiny.

Nadia ‘Dee’ Stafford is a hitman. After a disastrous career move as a cop, that saw her shoot an unarmed criminal and get kicked off the force, Nadia took herself into the wilds of Canada where she bought a lodge and started a B&B. But to keep her new life afloat she started taking jobs as a gun for hire. Early in her side-career she was taken under the wing of veteran hitman, ‘Jack’, and the two of them have been through a few near-misses and gruelling assignments together. 

But never far from Nadia’s mind is the truth of why she became a cop in the first place, and maybe why killing comes so naturally to her . . .  when she was just 13-years-old, Nadia and her cousin Amy were kidnapped. Nadia got away, Amy didn’t. After a botched trial, her murderer walked free. 

Drew Aldrich and the memory of Amy’s death have haunted Nadia ever since, but when Aldrich resurfaces (under a new alias) finding him sets off a chain-reaction in the murky underworld of hired assassins and puts Nadia in grave danger.  

‘Wild Justice’ is the third and (long overdue) final book in Kelley Armstrong’s ‘Nadia Stafford’ thriller trilogy. 

The first book in this series was ‘Exit Strategy’, released back in 2007. Armstrong introduced readers to disgraced but gutsy Nadia Stafford; gun for hire and ex-cop whose name and reputation had been dragged through the mud after she shot an unarmed criminal. That was a few years ago, and when we first meet Nadia she’s a lodge-owner moonlighting as a hitman. In that first book, Nadia joined forces with her older hitman mentor, Jack, to hunt down a serial killer by using herself as bait. Teaming up with Nadia and Jack were his own mentor, Evelyn, and US Marshall with a vigilante gig on the side, Quinn. 

The second book came out in 2009, ‘Made to be Broken’ teamed the foursome up again, this time to look for a vanished teenage girl and her baby. The second book teased out the relationships which were hinted at in ‘Exit Strategy’ – mainly a flirtation between Nadia and Quinn, a deep dislike between the two men and the realization that Nadia would like something more with her mentor, Jack . . . 

And then came the long, long, long wait for the final book. For a while it seemed that Kelley Armstrong was either too busy with ‘Women of the Otherworld’ and its spin-offs to ever feasibly write Nadia’s conclusion, or none was ever planned. This, despite ‘Made to be Broken’ having ended on an emotional cliffhanger that left fans reeling.

Well, it’s been four long years but finally we have ‘Wild Justice’ – the third and final book in Nadia Stafford’s story that addresses a traumatic and defining event from her childhood, and provides fans with some satisfying closure in our favourite hitman’s private life.

When the book begins Nadia is reeling after an assignment goes horribly wrong. Coming to pull her out of a guilt-spiral, Jack arrives with more than just words of wisdom to comfort his young protégé . . . he has something more, better – Jack’s located the man who murdered Nadia’s cousin, and got away with murder. 

I stiffened, “I know it’s going to bring back memories, Jack.” 
“Do you?” He glanced over. “Really?” 
I glared at him. “Yes, really.” 
He said nothing more until he turned off into the city. “I’m not a shrink. Never been to one. Shot a couple. Don’t think that counts. Point is, I don’t know how this works. Memories and shit. Better off confronted? Or buried?” 

But finding Drew Aldrich sets off a chain-reaction in the criminal underworld, and Nadia finds herself needing protection and help from Jack, Evelyn and Quinn once again.

This book snuck up on me, I've got to admit. I'd wanted it for so long that when it finally arrived, I was totally blindsided because I'd long ago convinced myself the day would never come and Nadia’s story would forever be open-ended. But from the very first page it was easy to slip back into this story alongside Nadia Stafford – once again picking up the thread of her traumatised childhood and searing vengeance that so determined her initial career as a cop, and then her decision to keep on killing as a hitman. 

Something that really shone for me in this book (and was a big reason I fell in love with the series to begin with) was how many tropes Armstrong avoids. Much like loyal and strong Elena in ‘Women of the Otherworld’, Nadia Stafford is not your typical heroine – and she’s definitely not like the female assassins of Hollywood. Forget Angelina Jolie, stiletto chases and cocktail murders – Nadia Stafford has girl-next-door looks and a down-to-earth disposition. She’s self-determined and clever, lets very few people get close to her and prefers her quiet life in the Canadian wilds. She’s a great dichotomy of perfectly ordinary woman leading a quietly extraordinary and deadly double-life.

I was so grateful that Armstrong addresses Nadia’s love life in this book, and gives readers a most satisfying conclusion. I won’t give anything away, but Armstrong beautifully balances the heat and built-up tension with the furiously paced whodunit. 

And the mystery at the heart of ‘Wild Justice’ is a doozey. Armstrong planted this way back in ‘Exit Strategy’ – setting up Nadia’s childhood trauma and survivor’s guilt over her cousin’s death. That long arc story really pays off in this book, as it’s intricately linked to Nadia’s personal barriers and killer instinct. 

‘Wild Justice’ may have been a long four years in coming, but it was well worth the wait. Here is a fine farewell for everyone’s favourite hitman, Nadia Stafford, in a conclusion that has far-reaches to the beginning of the series and roots in our heroines’ psyche. And brilliantly plotted and satisfying farewell to one of my favourite thriller series.


Wednesday, November 27, 2013

'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire' movie review

 Every revolution begins with a spark.

I had the great pleasure last night, of (finally!) seeing ‘Hunger Games: Catching Fire’ at IMAX Cinema. It was, of course, spectacular – and not just because between movie #1 and #2 Jennifer Lawrence (Katniss) has become an Oscar-winning, GIF-giving megastar of epic proportions … it was a wonderful film in its own right, and in keeping with the faithful adaptation of first book by director Gary Ross, ‘Catching Fire’ director Francis Lawrence has likewise delivered an extraordinary retelling of the second instalment in everyone’s favourite YA Dystopian series.

Remember who the enemy is.

Much like Suzanne Collins’ book, the first half of ‘Catching Fire’ focuses on Katniss and Peeta’s (Josh Hutcherson) lives in District 12 after their unprecedented double-“victory” in the 74th Hunger Games.

Katniss and Peeta are living in the Victor’s Village and suffering survivor’s guilt and post-traumatic stress disorder. They’re also not the happily-ever-after romance story the world thinks they are, and it’s apparent that shortly after returning home, Peeta figured out Katniss’s true feelings for him; not ambivalence, but not the love story he thought they were either. Katniss’s best friend and hunting partner, Gale (Liam Hemsworth) isn’t quite as convinced as Peeta that their Hunger Games romance was entirely fake, but he lets Katniss know where he’d like to stand in her life regardless.

When the film begins Katniss and Peeta are about to go on another whirlwind Victor’s tour of the Districts, culminating in a splashy Capitol party before the 75th Hunger Games are reaped.  This beginning of the film not only sets up Katniss’s post-Hunger Games life, but focuses on the over-arcing villains that carry the series to its conclusion. In the first film, scenes with President Snow were added to make it clear he was the bad guy – but in the book, Katniss and readers get their first real taste of him in ‘Catching Fire’. But what’s lost from Snow’s surprise visit, Donald Sutherland makes up with dripping menace and calculated threats in this second film.

The first-half of the movie also introduces us to the circumstances of the Districts. Previously confined to Katniss and Peeta’s 12, the Victor’s tour allows audiences to see that grey-tinged poverty and downtrodden citizens are not unique to Katniss’s home town, but all of Panem (barring The Capitol). This tour also hints at the sheer overwhelming depravity of Snow and the concept behind The Hunger Games. Forced to give speeches set out on cards, Katniss and Peeta address citizens, as the families of deceased contestants from said District stand on raised platforms. This is especially traumatic when they arrive in District 11, and Katniss is forced to look upon the faces of Rue’s family – it’s a heartbreaking scene that quickly delves into high-octane horror, in a perfect encapsulation of the entire Victor’s Tour.

While on tour Katniss and Peeta come face-to-face with the fallout of their Hunger Games win. There is disquiet and discontent in the Districts, and people are starting to fight back –it’s clear from the spray-painted Mockingjay symbol that abound, and the three-fingered District silent salute that is constantly raised … President Snow realises something must be done to quash Katniss’s unintentional rebellion.

Upon recommendation of new Game Maker, Plutarch Heavensbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman – already so well-suited to the Capitol that the costume department decided to give him a sash and little else to define his character… so he’s pretty much just Phillip Seymour Hoffman, plus sash) President Snow decided that to celebrate the 75th Quarter Quell Hunger Games … all previous winners will be reaped. Which means, Katniss and Peeta are back in the arena.

The sun persists in rising, so I make myself stand.

When the film shifts back into preparation mode for Katniss and Peeta in this, the Quarter Quell, it’s a weird combination of fun and doom. On the one hand, this is a “best of” past Hunger Games contestants, and as those who’ve read the book know, ‘Catching Fire’ provides a wealth of interesting new secondary characters. There’s fan-favourite Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin – with a smile to rival Heath Ledger’s) and slyly outspoken Johanna Mason (Jena Malone – all ferocity and humour). All the contestants are PISSED. OFF at having to compete for their lives again, and they’re holding nothing back on stage with Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci). On the one hand it is quite fun – Katniss is back and determined, if not to see herself survive, then to at least see Peeta through to the end. She’s in warrior-woman mode, and while it’s fun for the audience (more so than in ‘The Hunger Games’ when all contestants were children) … there’s no mistaking how horrendous it is to ask these (many of them damaged) survivors to re-enter the cause of their nightmares.  

The Arena is great. My mind was a little fuzzy on book details, but director Francis Lawrence never lets up once contestants enter the jungle arena. I jumped out of my skin so many times (the monkeys! THE MONKEYS!), but Francis Lawrence also does well to tease out these characters in-between the edge-of-your-seat escapes from poisoned fog and electrifying accidents.

Remember, girl on fire, I'm still betting on you.

Something that really came through in the movie for me – and it’s down to a great script, Jennifer Lawrence’s goddam beautiful portrayal and, I think, the fact that Francis Lawrence is at the helm for the two-part finale of ‘Mockingjay’ – is Katniss’s overall story-arc in this series. She goes from being an unwilling puppet in The Hunger Games for Capitol and President Snow’s amusement, to a sort of unwilling figurehead in the upcoming Revolution. That really hit home for me in this movie, even more so than it did in the books … to the point that I think the ending of ‘Mockingjay’ will make a lot more sense and not seem like such a cop-out to people.

And I think because of that I also, somehow, find myself firmly on Team Peeta. I don’t know what it was specifically (Hutcherson’s suddenly chiselled jaw, cute cowlick or the fact that I started to see Peeta as the only other person in the world to truly understand Katniss) but suddenly not even the steely-gaze of a Hemsworth could deter me from my Team Peeta banner waving.

I really, thoroughly enjoyed ‘Hunger Games: Catching Fire’. I know a lot was left out (mostly to do with getting-to-know the fellow Quarter Quell tributes) but Francis Lawrence did well to raise the energy and high-stakes in this second film, in a very honest adaptation of Suzanne Collins’s book. Jennifer Lawrence was, as always, perfection; a great combination of suffering survivor, loving sister and determined warrior. Josh Hutcherson seems to have suddenly found his leading-man shoes and even Sam Claflin (who initially underwhelmed me in advance photos, and broke my heart when he announced, almost proudly, that he “doesn’t read”) had me on-board.

Now, gimme ‘Mockingjay: Part 1’!


Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Been Meaning to Finish . . .

Last week I posted a confessional, of sorts – listing all the fabulous books that are languishing in my ‘Been Meaning to Read’ pile.  
But the truth is, there are a lot more books that I could have listed but didn’t because they were in a sub-category: book series that I started reading, but haven’t continued with . . . a ‘Been Meaning to Finish’ pile, if you will.  
These are books that I haven’t got round to picking up, despite the fact that I thoroughly enjoyed the first book in the series or am so close to finishing the series completely, if only I'd read the finale . . . see? More bookish insanity! 
Now, some of these I have good excuses for – either I’m delaying saying goodbye to these characters, or I have such outlandishly high expectations from the first book that I don’t want to risk the disappointment of a lagging second (which has been known to happen!). 
Here are those books/series that I've been meaning to finish . . 

Lust for Life last book in Jeri Smith-Ready’s WVMP Radio series

Yep. Nope. Can’t do it. I’m sorry! I love this series, I adore Ciara and Shane and Smith-Ready had me on the edge-of-my-seat with their romance and helter-skelter lives as radio vampire-DJs. But this is the fourth and final book in the series, and I’m just not yet ready to say goodbye to them for good and forever. So I’m delaying. 

Days of Blood and Starlight second book in Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone series

I LOVED the first book. LOVED. ADORED. Hadn’t read anything quite so magical/unique in a long time, so why didn’t I dive right in to the second book? Weeeeellll . . .  I have tried. Truly. I've gotten about 12% through my ebook copy, but have yet to feel that lingering pull that keeps me enthralled and reading. I've stopped and re-started this book about three times, never quite getting hooked (and, if I’m honest, I haven’t seen the same rave reviews for ‘Blood and Starlight’ as I did for ‘Smoke and Bone’). So for now I've tucked this one away and stopped pressuring myself – clearly I’m just not in the right space to read the follow-up to one of my absolute favourite books to have come out of 2012. Also not helping matters is the fact that novella #2.5 in this series is titled ‘Night of Cake & Puppets’ . . . which just sounds bonkers to me. 

Women of the Otherworld every installment that’s not Clay and Elena’s by Kelley Armstrong

To be honest, I started on a slippery-slope when I began reading Armstrong’s ‘Women of the Otherworld’ series. I gobbled up ‘Bitten’ and ‘Stolen’ and then bought all the books in Armstrong’s series . . .  but when I tried reading ‘Dime Store Magic’ I got grumpy that it wasn’t about the werewolves or my favourite couple, Elena and Clay. So I looked ahead and saw that they next appeared in ‘Broken’ and then ‘Frostbitten’ . . . and I never went back and read all the books I'd skipped. Sure, I picked up again for Savannah’s story and got the gist of what I'd missed, but I do really love Kelley Armstrong (although new book ‘Omens’ not so much – it’s a bit boring) and I've promised myself to go back and read all the ‘Women of the Otherworld’ books that I skipped to get Clay and Elena’s story.

Shadow of Night second book in Deborah Harkness’s All Souls Trilogy 

Again, I loved ‘A Discovery of Witches’. But when ‘Shadow of Night’ arrived it was all big and chunky (584-pages, people!) I cracked it open and got 15-pages in before I had to admit to myself that I couldn’t actually remember very well where ‘A Discovery of Witches’ left off or what the big spoiler-y cliffhanger was again. *Sigh*. This is the problem when you read so many books; the complex storylines get lost and befuddled between releases, so when it comes to delving back into this extremely intricate world it becomes clear that my poor brain decided not to sacrifice those Spice Girls lyrics for more mental-space and I draw a complete blank. I probably just need to read the last chapter of ‘Discovery of Witches’ or find some spark-notes online (or a particularly spoiler-heavy Goodreads review) to jog my memory. This is more likely to happen when third and final ‘The Book of Life’ comes out next year and I’m motivated to finish the trilogy completely.

Dead Ever After final book in Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse: Southern Vampire series 

Urgh. And then there’s that one series that’s been letting me down for the last 4-5 books and I actually cringe at the thought of the author attempting to give me a halfway satisfying conclusion. I’m sorry Ms Harris and Ms Stackhouse, but this series started to seriously irk me with all the faerie stuff (not even HBO could make it cool, and Ms Harris just insisted on bringing those fae relatives back again and again and again). Not to mention the fact that everybody’s favourite steamy couple got all staid and dull when the chase was over and they actually got together

I’m even less inclined to read this, the 13th and final Sookie Stackhouse book, when I see that Charlaine Harris has a #13.5 out too (Who does she think she is? John Farnham?). I know it’s a short-story collection, but the very fact that Harris felt the need to release ‘After Dead: What Came Next in the World of Sookie Stackhouse’ tells me that things might have wrapped a little too hastily in ‘Dead Ever After’. And it does annoy me that great characters like Quinn were just hustled out of the series for no good reason and now she’s going to justify their sudden departure in a short-story collection. Grr. See? Even just theorizing about these books annoys me. 
I’m not in an open-minded enough place to lay this series to rest yet. 
Also, 3.0/5-stars on Amazon is . . . . not inspiring.  

Hallowed and Boundless books two and three in Cynthia Hand’s Unearthly series.

I have no excuse. I really enjoyed first book ‘Unearthly’ and there are occasions when I actually stop and think; “whatever happened to that angel who saved the human boy from a wildfire. . . ?” before realizing that I could actually find out because the series is complete. But then I get sidetracked by other books and this one just keeps getting pushed back. I know, I know – I will get around to it. 
One day.
. . . Maybe. 

Saturday, November 23, 2013

'Vango: Between Sky And Earth' Vango #1 by Timothée de Fombelle

 From the BLURB:

A gripping mystery-adventure set in the 1930s interwar period about a character desperately searching for his identity.

Raised by a strange nanny in Sicily, Vango grows up with one friend, a priest Zefiro, who lives in a monastery hidden from sight. On reaching adulthood, Vango decides to follow in Zefiro s steps, but at the moment he is taking his holy orders at Notre Dame in Paris, he is falsely accused of a crime and has to go on the run. This is a breathless and highly cinematic story that follows Vango travelling by Zeppelin across Europe from Stromboli to Nazi Germany, from Scotland to the Soviet Union, climbing the rooftops of Paris, crossing the paths of arms traffickers, crooked policemen, Russian spies and even Stalin.

Outside Notre Dame, a group of men who were about to become ordained priests are lying, facedown on the cobbled stones. A group of policemen, led by one superintendent Boulard are making their way through the crowd, searching for one 19-year-old man; 

Just then, one of the seminarians stood up. He wasn’t very tall. His robe was weighed down with the rain. His face was streaming. He turned full-circle in the midst of so many bodies, none of which moved. On every side, plain-clothes policemen emerged from the crowd and began to advance towards him. The young man bought his hands together as if in prayer, then let them fall to his sides. The clouds in the sky were reflected in his eyes. 
“Vango Romano?” the superintendent called out. 
The boy nodded. 

Thus begins Timothée de Fombelle’s book, ‘Vango: Between Sky And Earth.’ Originally published in 2010 in France (‘Entre ciel et terre’) the English translation of the book (by Sarah Ardizzone) has only just been released this year.

The book begins in 1934, with Vango the main suspect in the murder of a priest. After the confrontation at Notre Dame, Vango is saved by a passing Zeppelin and goes on the run. Vango’s bid for escape will see him cross the skies to Germany and beyond – and as his tale unravels and intersects with those around him, his story backtracks to 1918 and the Aeolian Islands where he and his nurse found refuge as survivors of a shipwreck. And then jumping ahead to 1925, and the discovery of a secret island called Arkudah – then to 1929, when Vango found himself aboard the Graf Zeppelin for the World Tour, and met a young Scottish heiress who he’d never be able to forget … and, finally, circling back to the 1930s, as Vango comes to realise his life-long paranoia may be grounded in a frightening reality.

Timothée de Fombelle was a playwright before becoming an author. In 2006 he released his debut novel, the first book in children’s series ‘Toby Lolness’ and met great success – the ‘Toby’ books have since been translated into 29 languages and the first book is being made into a movie. With his second series, ‘Vango’, de Fombelle has once again proven himself – here is a breathtaking new series woven around an international murder-mystery, peppered with historic characters, grand events and featuring one of the most fantastically compelling protagonists.

I knew after about three pages that ‘Vango’ would be a favourite book of 2013 for me (never mind that it was first published, technically, in 2010) and I was 100% right. Timothée de Fombelle’s playwright roots shine throughout the book, but nevermore so than in the exhilarating and beautifully staged opening chapter. Notre Dame de Paris setting, police charging through a crowd who had gathered to watch young men become priests – and an accused murderer among them. I knew I was hooked because as the lovely character of Ethel notes; "I like the idea of a priest who climbs cathedrals to escape the police." 

Even before Vango scaled the side of Notre Dame to escape police superintendent Boulard by hitching a ride on a passing Zeppelin (!) de Fombelle had me hooked even with the minor details in such an extravagant set-up; like young Scottish miss, Ethel, who was in the crowd watching Vango being ordained with a tear in her eye. 

From that first explosive opening chapter, de Fombelle plays with pace and flashbacks like a true virtuoso. Now a fugitive, Vango starts backtracking through his life to pinpoint when the danger began – he has been forever paranoid, always afraid of being followed or monitored, and now recent events have proven him horribly right. 

Part of the charm of  ‘Vango: Between Sky And Earth’ is how de Fombelle has manipulated history for his story. The author plucks historic figures from the depths of time and turns them into characters – like Hugo Eckener (commander of the Graf Zeppelin) who de Fombelle has written as a great friend of Vango’s (they met on the 1929 World Tour) and as a quick-witted, if quiet protestor to Hitler’s increasing regime. There are also snippets of story told from the perspective of young girl, Svetlana, who turns out to be Svetlana Alliluyeva – Josef Stalin’s daughter. These historic guess-who’s never felt clunky, but were a wonderfully natural mix in the storytelling. 

And the storytelling is marvellous. From a mysterious young woman called simply The Cat, to Russian spies and hidden islands – ‘Vango’ is like no other story you would have ever read. It’s like a hyper-coloured espionage, spy-thriller with backwards-and-forwards timeline, a charmingly paranoid protagonist, some heart-clutching romance and a cliffhanger you’ll happily topple into. 

I was so happy to get to the end of this book and discover that, despite the sequel ‘Un prince sans royaume’ having been released in France back in 2011, the English-translation of ‘A Prince Without a Kingdom’ is coming in 2014. Thank God!


Coming in 2014 

Thursday, November 21, 2013

'Relish: My Life in the Kitchen' by Lucy Knisley

 From the BLURB:

Lucy Knisley loves food. The daughter of a chef and a gourmet, this talented young cartoonist comes by her obsession honestly. In her forthright, thoughtful, and funny memoir, Lucy traces key episodes in her life thus far, framed by what she was eating at the time and lessons learned about food, cooking, and life. Each chapter is bookended with an illustrated recipe—many of them treasured family dishes, and a few of them Lucy's original inventions.

A welcome read for anyone who ever felt more passion for a sandwich than is strictly speaking proper, Relish is a graphic novel for our time: it invites the reader to celebrate food as a connection to our bodies and a connection to the earth, rather than an enemy, a compulsion, or a consumer product.

“I was a child raised by foodies” – so begins Lucy Knisley’s ‘Relish, My Life in the Kitchen’, a collection of graphic food-themed short-stories in Knisley’s graphic novel memoir. 

I heard Lucy Knisley speak at Melbourne Writers Festival back in August, and quickly snatched up a copy of ‘Relish’ (which I also got Lucy to sign – and she drew a picture of my favourite food, Turkish delight, along with her signature). And I suppose it’s because I listened to Lucy’s fascinating lecture detailing the long road to graphic-novel publication that I decided to savour my reading of this book. 

I sat in the audience as Lucy showed us slides of the many reworked front covers she drew up – different colour and food combinations – and the painstakingly slow task of transcribing her own handwriting onto the storyboard panels. Yes, ‘Relish’ is a 173-page graphic novel that could very easily be read in one sitting. But it’s also an absolutely scrumptious and heartfelt food-memoir that deserves a slow read . . . so, I decided to relish this book, and I’m glad I did. 

Here are a collection of coming-of-age stories in the life of Lucy Knisley, triggered by the tantalizing aromas in her mother’s kitchen, or the slick, greasy taste of a smuggled McDonalds French-fry. Lucy’s life is so wrapped up in food – her mother was a caterer, her uncle owned a food shop, and she used to knock back vinegar shots with her father – that she finds many of the big moments in her life were orbited around food or dining occasions.

Like when she discovered the power of baking as ice-breaker to win friends in middle school. Or when she and her father went on a trip to Europe, following her parent’s divorce and her bratty behaviour coincided with her flagrantly eating McDonald’s junk food in front of her horrified foodie father. 

A trip to Mexico with her mother and her best friend involved eating fresh eggs over black beans, tortilla and salsa verde . . . but is also remembered for her friend Drew becoming obsessed with Mexican porn magazines, and Lucy getting her period for the first time – effectively marking the time when childhood was left behind. 

Peppered throughout the book are hand-drawn recipes – from mum’s pesto to sangria – the recipes actually look pretty easy . . .  although I say this as someone who still burns toast and considers opening  a cup of yoghurt to be ‘cooking’. 

‘Relish’ has been universally praised, and even made the Publishers Weekly Best Children's Book of 2013 list. And it’s easy to see why. Lucy Knisley has created quite the concoction with this book – equal parts heartfelt memoir and laugh-out-loud confessional. She blends food and life in such a tantalizing way, it’s hard not to think of one’s own food-trigger memories in comparison to Lucy’s. This is easily a favourite book of 2013 for me.


Tuesday, November 19, 2013

AUDIOBOOK: 'Me Talk Pretty One Day' by David Sedaris, read by the author

From the BLURB:

David Sedaris's fourth book mines poignant comedy from his peculiar childhood in North Carolina, his bizarre career path, and his move with his lover to France. Though his anarchic inclination to digress is his glory, Sedaris does have a theme in these reminiscences: the inability of humans to communicate. 

The title is his rendition in transliterated English of how he and his fellow students of French in Paris mangle the Gallic language. In the essay "Jesus Shaves," he and his classmates from many nations try to convey the concept of Easter to a Moroccan Muslim. "It is a party for the little boy of God," says one. "Then he be die one day on two... morsels of... lumber," says another. Sedaris muses on the disputes between his Protestant mother and his father, a Greek Orthodox guy whose Easter fell on a different day. Other essays explicate his deep kinship with his eccentric mom and absurd alienation from his IBM-exec dad: "To me, the greatest mystery of science continues to be that a man could father six children who shared absolutely none of his interests."

David Sedaris is an American humorist, essayist, comedian, author, and radio contributor – type his name into YouTube and be prepared to get lost in a vortex of his various bookstore appearances, Jon Stewart and Late Show guest-stars and any number of clips of him reading an essay to peeing-in-their-pants delighted crowd. He’s really, really funny and his autobiographical essay collections came highly-recommended when I let it be known that I was getting into “the audiobooks.” And it’s no wonder, because if you really want to have a fabulous listening experience it doesn’t get much better than a David Sedaris book, because he narrates all his own work. He has to – Sedaris has a high-pitched, lisped North Carolina accent that is surprisingly melodic, and after a few sentences I could not fathom an actor reading his essays and getting their tongues around his quirk storytelling (like singing TV commercials in an Etta James imitation, for example.)

The run time is 5 hours and 51 minutes

‘Me Talk Pretty One Day’ was his essay collection from 2000, based loosely around life-lessons; from the grand to the gross and everything in-between. 

In “Go Carolina”, David recounts the day his school speech therapist came for him and began, what would become, a series of torturous lessons to correct his ‘lazy tongue’ and lisp. This, despite the fact that the young speech therapist herself hailed from the Deep South and, as David disdainfully pointed out; “Here was a person for whom the word pen had two syllables.” 

Many of the stories are about the year that he moved to France with his boyfriend, Hugh, and had to enrol in beginner French and then harder French lessons. Sedaris describes his broken French tongue as him “speaking Yoda” but revels in the heady fear of being a stranger in a foreign land – things like going to the doctor and describing ailments in lousy French, or becoming the town idiot who only knows the French word for “bottleneck” so repeats it at every opportunity. My favourite of the ‘David in France’ stories had to be “Jesus Shaves”. Involving the recounting of a particular French class when the lesson plan was based around major holidays, and a Moroccan student had to be explained by her fellow classmates what Easter was. Aside from the cultural differences between bunnies and bells, describing the cornerstone of Christianity is hilariously hard to do when you know very little French.

He nice, the Jesus. 
— “Jesus Shaves” 

The bulk of ‘Me Talk Pretty One Day’ is about Sedaris and his boyfriend Hugh, and Sedaris’ adventures in French. And no wonder when this chapter of his life was clearly a deep well for personal anecdote. Particularly because it involved the rare occasion of a grown man going back to school and learning the very basics of a new language. And, as many English-speakers who have studied foreign languages will know, a main headache of such learning is no thanks to gender; 

I find it ridiculous to assign a gender to an inanimate object incapable of disrobing and making an occasional fool of itself. Why refer to lady crack pipe or good sir dishrag when these things could never live up to all that their sex implied? 
— “Me Talk Pretty One Day”

All of Sedaris’ stories are brilliantly funny, and he writes beautifully. Throughout my listening of the audiobook I was struck by certain thoughts and quotes that Sedaris delivers so as to linger. Even mundane musings on why he persists with the typewriter over a computer are delivered with sharp wit;

At the end of a miserable day, instead of grieving my virtual nothing, I can always look at my loaded wastepaper basket and tell myself that if I failed, at least I took a few trees down with me. 
— “”

But the reason I think David Sedaris is clearly a beloved author for so many (truly, he seems to have a cult-following status) is because he can have you in belly-aching tears one moment, and then ease you into poignancy. My favourite story of all was “The Youth in Asia” (the title is in reference to ‘euthanasia’ but Sedaris is struck by very different imagery when he initially hears the word). This story is initially a recounting of the Sedaris family pets and the histories of their deaths . . . but becomes about the loss of a parent. He read this story on the radio program ‘This American Life’ and I highly recommend it for a listen. Likewise, it has appeared in Esquire. I think I fell a little bit in love with David Sedaris after hearing this story, as I think anyone would.  

I thoroughly enjoyed my first encounter with David Sedaris, especially listening to his storytelling via audiobook. I was so enamoured, that when I typed ‘David Sedaris Australia’ into Google and found out he would be touring in January (doing a series of conversations and readings from his 2013 book, ‘Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls’) I snapped up two tickets for his Melbourne appearance. 


Saturday, November 16, 2013

'The Perfect Match' Blue Heron #2 by Kristan Higgins

From the BLURB:

What if the perfect match is a perfect surprise? 

Honor Holland has just been unceremoniously rejected by her lifelong crush. And now—a mere three weeks later—Mr. Perfect is engaged to her best friend. But resilient, reliable Honor is going to pick herself up, dust herself off and get back out there or she would if dating in Manningsport, New York, population 715, wasn't easier said than done. 

Charming, handsome British professor Tom Barlow just wants to do right by his unofficial stepson, Charlie, but his visa is about to expire. Now Tom must either get a green card or leave the States—and leave Charlie behind. 

In a moment of impulsiveness, Honor agrees to help Tom with a marriage of convenience—and make her ex jealous in the process. But juggling a fiancé, hiding out from her former best friend and managing her job at the family vineyard isn't easy. And as sparks start to fly between Honor and Tom, they might discover that their pretend relationship is far too perfect to be anything but true love.

Honor Holland has been ‘friends with benefits’ with her oldest school friend, Brogan, since they were both freshmen in college. Technically she’s been in love with him for some 17 years, but when her doctor has the ‘tick-tock, tick-tock’ talk with her, Honor decides it’s now or never to profess her love and suggest she and Brogan get hitched (they’re not getting any younger, after all). What follows her proposal is the worst ever let-down and simile in the history of language – whereby Brogan compares Honor to a favourite old baseball glove; one you pull out for a bit of good luck during a hard match, but that you don’t rely on all year round. 


Even worse is when Honor’s best friend, Dana, ends up with Brogan’s ring on her finger a few weeks later . . . apparently in a crazy, spontaneous ‘we-just-knew-it-was-right’ love match.

Honor is shattered, but resigned.

Tom Barlow is a British mechanical engineer and professor at a nearby college. He’s staying in Manningsport, California to be near his beleaguered almost-stepson. Tom was engaged to Charlie’s mother, before discovering that she was cheating on him . . .  then she got hit by a car and died. That was a few years ago, now Charlie is a sullen teenager dressed all in black who seemingly doesn’t care one way or the other if Tom’s university can’t renew his green card and he returns to the UK forever. 

Then Honor’s grandmother, Goggy, has the crazy idea to set these two up (arranged marriages have been known to work) and sparks might just fly.

‘The Perfect Match’ is the second book in Kristan Higgins’ contemporary romance ‘Blue Heron’ series. 

So, I loved first book ‘The Best Man’ (which was also my first ever Kristan Higgins book, leaving me to wonder what else of hers I'd been missing out on!). I went into this second novel full of high-hopes and prepared to swoon all over again . . .  but I came out a little “meh”. 

I initially said that I'd never read a Kristan Higgins book because they all seemed too sugary-sweet, with none of the meatier barbs I quite like to read in my romances. Now, ‘The Best Man’ was by no means ‘Anna Karenina’ on the beleaguered-romance scale – but heroine Faith Holland did have a rotten streak with men, and her hero Levi Cooper was definitely donning armour. Then Higgins offered up Honor Holland and Tom Barlow – two people with quadruple the number of prickly problems that Faith and Levi had.

For one thing, Honor is humiliated when her best friend, love of her life and no-strings-attached bedroom-partner calls her the equivalent of his favourite baseball glove (to get him out of a slump? I guess?) and then goes and gets engaged to her (back-stabbing) best friend – but still wants them to remain close and put the awkwardness of her proposal behind them and move on. Not to mention her doctor is telling her she’s got to get a move on if she wants babies, and online dating websites bring up no potential hunnys in the Manningsport area. Tom is just as damaged – cheated on by his fiancée before she died, leaving him in limbo with her son who he now sees when his guardian grandparents allow, but who is harbouring a deep-seated resentment towards Tom, blaming him for his mother’s death. Phew. I thought, surely, with that much heaped on these two characters Higgins would be pulling out all the lovey-dovey stops to counteract all that heavy stuff. Sadly, I never felt like ‘The Perfect Match’ reached any sort of desirable romantic heights.

Tom and Honor come together for a sort of contractual arrangement – he for a green card, she for the potential of marriage and babies. Though these two start out with sparks flying and heat simmering;

“You understand how things are built,” she said. It sounded vaguely dirty.  
“You know how to . . . get things going.” 
His eyes dropped to her mouth. “Mmm-hmm.” 
“You’re good with your hands.” 
He leaned forward. “Are you flirting with me, Miss Holland?” he asked, his voice low.

Tom’s guard goes up when Honor moves into his home and Charlie still proves a battling sullen and sad teenager. Not to mention, Tom already went through the heartache of loving one woman who cheated on him, he’s never thrilled to see Honor light up whenever she sees Brogan.

The thing is, I loved how much of a battle Faith and Levi had before them in ‘The Best Man’ – and Higgins certainly had them conquering their demons. But I don’t think she ever got there with Tom and Honor.

For one thing, the Brogan/Dana storyline drops off far too quickly. Even though it’s set up as the big heartache of Honor’s life, Dana and Brogan and their in-your-face happiness are sporadically mentioned in a few chapters and then hardly at all throughout the rest of the book. But that was a great set-up, I thought, and right up until the end I wanted to know what was happening with that story – especially as Honor’s potentially lingering feelings for Brogan were a concern for Tom.

For another, I think Honor was quite hard done by in this book, and her romance never turned into the sparkly fairytale I thought she deserved after such heartache. At one point, Tom has this to say about her: “She was lovely. She had no idea, did she? Granted, he hadn’t exactly been struck with lightning the first time he’d seen her . . ” and, look, that’s fine. Far be it from me to want all contemporary romance heroines to look like Scarlett Johansson or be the sort of Mary-Sue’s who every male character fall head-over-heels in love with. But after being compared to an old baseball glove, and after reading Tom’s recounting of how he met Charlie’s mother (that was a love-at-first-sight set up, it would seem, since she was absolutely beautiful) I felt really terrible for Honor. When even the guy she ends up with has this to say about her; “But hers were the type of looks that grew on a person.” Maybe it’s far truer, but for all that Honor had been put through I wanted her to have a real Cinderella moment. 

Maybe I also felt that way because I also didn’t think that Tom and Honor ever fell for one another on a more intimate, intellectual level . . . this, I felt, was proven by the slap-dash high-octane ending of the book that throws them together once and for all. 

This book didn’t work for me the same way that ‘The Best Man’ did. Sure, I’ll read the next ‘Blue Heron’ book (this time about Faith and Honor’s friend, bartender Colleen – though I would have appreciated even a little bit of set-up for her book #3). I think I just wanted either a more intimate romance for Tom and Honor, or for Honor to have a real fist-pumping Cinderella moment after the glove simile (seriously that was just . . . brutal).


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