A Quirky Take on Parental Frailty: Goodbye, Vitamin…

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I’ve read quite a number of books featuring characters with Alzheimer’s or dementia in my time, but I’ve never come across one quite like Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong.  We received a copy of this one from Simon & Schuster for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Ruth is thirty and her life is falling apart: she and her fiancé are moving house, but he’s moving out to live with another woman; her career is going nowhere; and then she learns that her father, a history professor beloved by his students, has Alzheimer’s. At Christmas, her mother begs her to stay on and help. For a year.

Goodbye, Vitamin is the wry, beautifully observed story of a woman at a crossroads, as Ruth and her friends attempt to shore up her father’s career; she and her mother obsess over the ambiguous health benefits – in the absence of a cure – of dried jellyfish supplements and vitamin pills; and they all try to forge a new relationship with the brilliant, childlike, irascible man her father has become.

Most books about Alzheimer’s that I’ve come across tend to feature, at some point during the story, a scene or scenes that really bring home to the reader the harrowing disease that Alzheimer’s is – the way it erases the personality and memories of an individual and shatters the familiar ways in which family and friends have connected with the sufferer throughout their lifetime.

Goodbye, Vitamin is nothing like that.

In fact, Goodbye, Vitamin forgoes the inevitable destruction of the human brain and any relationships in which said brain was involved, and instead focuses on the ways in which Ruth, chaotic and underachieving daughter of an Alzheimer’s-afflicted father, tries to adjust to a life put on hold, while she helps out her mother for “just a year”.

I must admit, it was quite refreshing to read a book featuring a character with Alzheimer’s and not come away feeling angsty and unsettled at the prospect of literally having one’s mind slowly eroded from within.

The book is written in a sort of diary format, as Ruth recounts events in chronological order during her year back at home.  I generally find diary-type books engaging and so it was in this case.  I tend to enjoy that the sections can be quite short and so I feel like I’m getting somewhere with the book quickly.  Having said that, this isn’t an overly hefty read and things move along apace from the moment Ruth decides to give it a year until the poignant but hopeful ending.

Ruth has a dry and self-deprecating sense of humour and manages to reminisce on both her broken past relationship and her childhood relationship with her father without being particularly maudlin, but highlighting the weirdness that we accept as everday life.  Her father’s ex-students play a surprising and uplifting role in attempting to halt her father’s decline and I had a bit of chuckle at their cloak and dagger antics as well as their finding new excuses to take their “classes” off campus.

As much as this is a story about the decline of a family member and a change in the parent-child relationship, it is also a story about the chaos of early adulthood – yes, even up to one’s thirties!  Ruth is in as much a period of flux as her father as she tries to forget past mistakes and forge a new path in her career and life in general.

I would recommend Goodbye, Vitamin if you are looking for a convivial tale about an unwanted mental guest and the ways in which people choose to remember.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

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Atmospheric Adult Fiction and the Bygone Video Store: Universal Harvester

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Ah, the good old video store!  Blockbuster, Video2000, Civic Video, VideoEzy: for the most part they’ve all gone the way of the dinosaurs – not, thankfully, in the fiery chaos of destruction by meteorite, but nevertheless faded from consciousness, if not from the lazy person’s keyring.

Universal Harvester by John Darnielle, who I first encountered through Wolf in White Van  back in 2014, is the atmospheric, creepy and mildly discomfiting story of a selection of video tapes upon which some unwanted footage has been foisted.  We received our copy from Scribe Publications for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Jeremy works at the counter of Video Hut in Nevada, Iowa. It’s the 1990s, pre-DVD, and the work is predictable and familiar; he likes his boss, and it gets him out of the house.

But when a local schoolteacher comes in to return her copy of Targets, she has an odd complaint: ‘There’s something on it,’ she says. Two days later, another customer brings back She’s All That and complains that something is wrong: ‘There’s another movie on this tape.’

Curious, Jeremy takes a look. And what he sees on the videos is so strange and disturbing that it propels him out of his comfortable routine and into a search for the tapes’ creator. As the once-peaceful fields and barns of the Iowa landscape begin to seem sinister and threatening, Jeremy must come to terms with a truth that is as devastatingly sad as it is shocking.

If you haven’t read any of Darnielle’s work before, you won’t be familiar with his strange, detached narrative style.  A lot of the work of piecing together the story is left to the reader, and it can take a few chapters (or half the book) before one can feel settled in the story.  Even then, everything’s a bit touch and go as you never know where Darnielle will spin the yarn next.

There was something strangely attractive about the creepiness of the blurb that had me requesting this one.  If you are old enough to remember a time before internet, Netflix and 24 hour movie channels and the like, you will be able to appreciate the utter spookiness of finding weird, confusing, disturbing footage taped onto a video from a rental store.  I mean, someone had to first tape the footage, then borrow the video from the shop, then tape the footage onto the borrowed tape, then return it, all the while knowing that someone else was going to get one hell of a fright after borrowing out a tape for a Saturday night romcom.  It’s quite a violation if you think about it for too long!

The story unfolds slowly, with the mystery of the tapes eking out in dribs and drabs as more tapes come to light and Jeremy’s boss starts to get far too involved in the whole business.  Darnielle has done a brilliant job of heightening the suspense throughout, as particular characters start to behave in unexpected ways and its not clear how certain events and behaviours are linked – or if they are linked at all.  The structure of the book requires the reader to jump back and forth in time: initially we are introduced to Jeremy, the video store and the discovery of the errant tapes, before flicking back to the past and an instructive piece of plotting that fills in some of the gaps for one key character, and finally jumping forward to the present and a new set of characters who provide the denouement and tie up loose ends.

The final part of the story sees a new family moving in to the farmhouse in which the mysterious footage was apparently shot.  This family are the key to winding up the mystery and making the path straight for the reader.  It was a relief to have all the loose ends tied up in a completely unexpected way, and the ending really puts a new spin on the events that went before.

Once again, I don’t necessarily think that Darnielle’s style of writing is going to appeal to every reader, but I did find this book more accessible and less confusing than Wolf in White Van.  There seemed to be more clues and contextual pieces of information from the author in this one early on, that at least had me invested in Jeremy, his father and what might befall them throughout the story, so that I was committed to getting to the end even when things weren’t as clear as they might be.

I would give this one a go if you are a fan of stories that give you a shiver up your spine, but don’t follow the usual path and tropes seen in most creepy stories.

Until next time,

Bruce

Magical Middle Grade in a Mouldering Setting: Wormwood Mire…

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Subtle magic, family mysteries and mouldering old houses are the cornerstones of Wormwood Mire, the second Stella Montgomery intrigue by Aussie author Judith Rossell. If you are into historical fiction for young readers that embraces a bit of the ol’ unexplained, then you should probably jump on board with this series if you haven’t already.  The good news is that you don’t have to have read the series opener, Withering-by-Sea, to enjoy this second offering – I myself had forgotten much about the plot of the first book, except for the major points, and found that the small references to the happenings in the first book really provide all a new reader would need to know.  Enough blathering though.  We received a copy of Wormwood Mire from HarperCollins Australia for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

When Stella Montgomery returned to the Hotel Majestic cold and wet but exhilarated by adventure, the Aunts were furious.

Now they are sending Stella away to the old family home at Wormwood Mire, where she must live with two strange cousins and their governess.

But within the overgrown grounds of the mouldering house, dark secrets slither and skulk, and soon Stella must be brave once more if she’s to find out who – or what – she really is …

From bestselling writer-illustrator Judith Rossell comes the thrilling and magical sequel to her multi-award-winning novel, WITHERING-BY-SEA.

Let me start by reiterating that I really don’t think that one has to have read the first book in the series in order to fully appreciate this one.  I found Wormwood Mire to be a much more intriguing and multi-layered story than Withering-by-Sea, and overall would have to say that I enjoyed the reading experience much more.  Stella, whose is alone in the world but for a collection of cranky aunts, is sent away to live with her as-yet-unmet cousins, Strideforth and Hortense, at the crumbling estate of a long-dead relation, after the shenanigans of the first book.  Stella, having never met her cousins and never attended proper lessons at all, is understandably nervous about the move, but hopes that spending time at the estate will allow her to discover more about some of the mysteries surrounding her family and her strange new-found abilities.

Happily, while Stella’s cousins possess a few interesting personality traits, the trio gets along famously and we become privy to the real mystery of the book – the bizarre collection of plants and creatures kept on the estate by their ancestor, Wilberforce Montgomery.  This is not the only mystery that Stella hopes to shed light on though; she is also much interested in finding out more about her mother and two children in a photograph, who Stella suspects are herself and a long-lost sibling.  Add to this set of puzzles a rather unorthodox (and quite shady) dentist and travelling showman, a ghostly figure flitting about the place and townsfolk whispering about history repeating and you have all the pieces in play for a particularly intense game of discovery and derring-do.  As with the previous book, the pace and overall tone is quite sedate, but the multiple, interconnected mysteries add plenty of depth to the story and I was drawn further in to the search for answers with every passing chapter.

The house itself was a wonderful addition to the story and almost a character in itself, with secret passages and exotic artifacts squirreled away by Wilberforce Montgomery.  Hortense’s collection of truly outlandish animal friends also adds colour (and chaos!) to the story, with a disagreeable and downright naughty mollyhawk who squawks in fluent latin and an extremely bitey ermine just two of her unusual menagerie.  Another highlight of the story is the multiple references to Stella’s book of cautionary tales, received, of course, from the nefarious aunts, A Garden of Lillies, in which children who stray from following the instructions of their elders meet various unpleasant ends, recounted in rhyming couplets. I’m fairly sure that thwormwood-mire-interiorese little interludes are a nod to Edward Gorey’s Gashlycrumb Tinies and provide just the right amount of comic relief.

Once again this tome contains some gorgeous ink wash illustrations, some as whole page images and others fitting around the text throughout.  The style of illustrations, as well as their greenish tones, add to the sense of place and the historical setting in which the story unfolds, and as I always say, any book – every book – is better with pictures.  The chunky hardback format and the included ribbon bookmark make the reading experience satisfyingly tactile too.

I am very interested to see what happens next in this series, as this book ends on an unexpected and revealing note.  Given that this story was so different to the last, I am sure that Rossell will have something equally diverting for Stella Montgomery’s next intrigue!

Until next time,

Bruce

Alphabet Soup Challenge: Useless Bay

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alphabet soup challenge 2016

It’s getting to the pointy end of the year when I start to look back over the challenges to which I’ve committed and start to panic that I won’t finish them.  Thanks to a bit of blind luck, I’ve got the perfect entry today for the 2016 Alphabet Soup Challenge hosted by Escape with Dollycas, for the letter “U”: YA mystery suspense novel Useless Bay by M. J. Beaufrand.  We received our copy from the publisher via Netgalley and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

On Whidbey Island, the Gray quintuplets are the stuff of legend. Pixie and her brothers have always been bigger and blonder than their neighbors, as if they were birthed from the island itself. Together, they serve as an unofficial search-and-rescue team for the island, saving tourists and locals alike from the forces of wind and sea. But, when a young boy goes missing, the mysteries start to pile up. While searching for him, they find his mother’s dead body instead—and realize that something sinister is in their midst. Edgar-nominated author M. J. Beaufrand has crafted another atmospheric thriller with a touch of magical realism that fans of mystery and true crime will devour.

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Although the cover of this edition puts me in mind of a middle grade targeted story, this is definitely one for the young adults and older readers.  The story is a strange combination of murder mystery, magical realism and family drama and at times I felt that the author couldn’t quite decide which genre they wanted to focus on, so chose instead to flick between them and see what happened.

The Gray quintuplets have lived on the island all their lives and are constantly described in almost mythical terms, but when it boils down to it, it appears that they just happen to be above average height with a strong familial connection and a fiercely independent streak.  Pixie, from whose point of view half of the story is told, comes to be responsible, almost by accident, for a bloodhound who turns out to be brilliant at finding lost people; and it seems like there are a lot of lost people to find on the island and a steady stream of work available for Pixie and her dog, unlikely as that may be.  Henry, from whose point of view the other half of the story is told, is the son of a famous, rich man, and the family’s connection with Useless Bay itself -and the mystical Gray quintuplets – is the result of some serendipitous real estate brokerage.

Overall, I did enjoy the mystery and drama of the story but much of the book felt a bit unwieldy, switching between the grim reality of searching for a lost child (presumed dead) and the odd levity of Pixie’s foray into paranormal historical hallucinations.  The overall atmosphere is quite despondent, but this is tempered with scenes of pacey action and the revelation of unexpected secrets.

I can certainly say I haven’t come across such a hybrid of genres and interesting mix of characters and setting for quite some time in a YA novel, so for that reason alone it is worth picking up.  I think this would appeal to those who enjoy a quirky mystery that blends reality with unexpected paranormal twists.

In case you’re wondering how I’m going with the Alphabet Soup Reading Challenge, you can check out my progress here.

Until next time,

Bruce

New Release Aussie Award Winner “The Better Son”: Siblings, Secrets and Spelunking:

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Today I’ve got an award winning Tasmanian tale for you that runs the gamut of historical fiction, contemporary family drama and literary fiction in an absorbing and darkly unfolding narrative.  We received a copy of The Better Son by Katherine Johnson from Ventura Press for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

1952. Tasmania. The beautiful green, rolling hills of the dairy town Mole Creek have a dark underside — a labyrinthine underworld of tunnels that stretch for countless miles, caverns the size of cathedrals and underground rivers that flood after heavy rain. The caves are dangerous places, forbidden to children. But this is Tasmania — an island at the end of the earth. Here, rules are made to be broken.

For two young brothers, a hidden cave a short walk from the family farm seems the perfect escape from their abusive, shell-shocked father — until the older brother goes missing. Fearful of his father, the younger and more vulnerable Kip lies about what happened. It is a decision that will haunt him his whole life.

Fifty years later, Kip — now an award-winning scientist — has a young son of his own, but cannot look him without seeing his lost brother, Tommy. On a mission of atonement, he returns to the cave they called Kubla to discover if it’s ever too late to have a second chance. To go back and set things right. To be the father you never had.

Although this is a bit heavier going than my usual fare, I couldn’t help but be drawn into The Better Son by the imagery of epic landscapes and the gritty, hands-on experiences of Kip and his brother Tommy.  The book begins with a glimpse into Kip’s life now, the reader following along as he sets out to right a wrong about which we currently know nothing.  From here, we are plunged back into the turbulent world of Tasmania in post-war 1952, where returned servicemen try to pick up normal life where they left it to go to war and kids are workers, risk-takers and the repository of their parents’ shortcomings.

The section describing the boys’ childhood I found to be quite harrowing at times.  Tommy is the titular better son and enjoys his father’s constant favour, while Kip is left in the cold and the unfortunate recipient of his father’s ever-present wrath.  This family drama is played out against the boys’ discovery of an untouched cave system in the mountains near their home, and the juxtaposition of the freedom offered by the cave exploration and the oppressive, walking-on-eggshells atmosphere of home is striking.  After the accident, Kip’s home life becomes much worse, but it is at this point that the layers of secrets that have been kept through the years start to come to light, throwing new context onto information we have previously received.

The book flicks between perspectives and time periods – mainly those of Kip’s past and present, as well as the past and present of Squid, the farmhand who lives with the family and has a key role in the boys’ life.  This relieved the heaviness of the content somewhat, but I did feel at times like I just wanted to find out what actually happened to Tommy.  The pacing of the Tommy-mystery part was quite slow, and being the eager beaver that I am when there is a mystery involved, I was ever-hopeful that the answer was around the next page-turn.

There are not a lot of redeeming features to many of the characters in the book, although for the most part, we are privy to the circumstances under which certain decisions and behaviours originated.  One of the interesting things about the tale is that the motivations of almost all of the main characters are kept hidden until close to the end of the story, when secrets are revealed thick and fast and many events start to make more sense.

Again, this is not my usual fare, but I can definitely see why The Better Son has won no less than three awards to date.  It’s a tightly woven exploration of relationships, secrets and regrets with an undercurrent of self-sacrifice and the tiniest slivers of hope, set against the dramatic and deadly landscape of Tasmania’s mountain regions.  If you are looking for something to draw you in and make you feel like an interloper in the rocky lives of an ordinary Australian family of the 1950s, you should definitely give this one a go.

Until next time,

Bruce