Utopirama: Pigeons, the Elderly and Personal Growth…

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It has been a considerable while since I last put up a novel in the Utopirama category, but today’s delightful little tome simply could not fit anywhere else.  We received a copy of Soft in the Head by Marie-Sabine Roger via Netgalley and as it is a translation from the original French, I should probably mention that the translator was Frank Wynne – this will be important to know later.  Let us begin.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

A humorous, heartwarming story follows the intellectually dim-witted 45-year-old Germain as he meets and slowly gets to know 85-year-old Margueritte, who sits in the park every day watching the pigeons and reading. She speaks to him as an equal, something his friends rarely do, and reads to him, sparking in him a previously undiscovered interest in books and reading. When she reveals to Germain that she is starting to lose her eyesight to macular degeneration, he is inspired for the first time in his life to work at reading so that he can read fluently to his new friend.

soft in the head

Quick Overview:

This is a novel in which, I can happily report, nothing particularly distressing occurs.  The old lady does not die in the end.  There is a bit of language and sexual allusions, to warn those who are squeamish about such things, but overall the story explores the developing friendship between Germain and Margueritte, as well as charting Germain’s growth in self esteem, motivation and personal purpose.  If this sounds like it flies a bit too close to the winds of tedium for you, I can assure you that the gentle pace is more than made up for by the charmingly personable narration of Germain.  The effect of the whole story is a lingering sense of upliftedness and an appreciation for the small things in life.

I have had a bit of trouble with translations from French in the past, for reasons that I can’t quite pick.  Perhaps I’m just not finely attuned to the French sense of humour.  This translation though, was excellent, in that it kept the Frenchness of the characters and story and setting, yet seamlessly incorporated turns of phrase in the English vernacular that added to the atmosphere and allowed the characters to be more fleshed out for an audience unfamiliar with the nuances of the French language and lifestyle.  The narrative style was immediately engaging, and Germain is such a likable and sympathetic narrator that I couldn’t help but take his arm and stroll along into the story.

If you are unfamiliar with Netgalley, you will be unaware that reviewers may request books months before their release date and it was just such a circumstance that had me completely forgetting the specifics of the blurb before I began reading.  For this reason, I went into this story thinking that Germain was in his early twenties rather than mid-forties.  His style of narration and continual admissions to being slightly below par in the intelligence stakes did nothing to dispel this misconception, so I was more than a little surprised when Germain mentions about halfway through the book that he is actually 45!  After allowing my brain a few chapters to reconceptualise the main character, I quite easily got back into enjoying the flow of the story.

This would be the perfect pick for a lazy holiday read or to keep on your nightstand for when you need a gentle easing into sleep.  It’s funny, touching and generally focused on finding the good in people and the magic that can happen when an unexpected friendship bears the fruit of positive change in the participants.

Utopian Themes:

Books as solace for the weary heart

Traditional skills and hobbies

Intergenerational friendship

Overcoming adversity

Forgiveness

Protective Bubble-o-meter:

protective bubbleprotective bubbleprotective bubbleprotective bubbleprotective bubble

Five out of five protective bubbles for the simple pleasure of feeding pigeons from a sunny spot on a park bench.

Until next time,

Bruce

TBR Friday: Hester and Harriet

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TBR Friday

I’m slowly edging my way up that mountain and this month I’ve knocked over another one of those books that I just had to have the second it was published, only to leave it languishing on the shelf for months.  Hester and Harriet by Hilary Spiers was touted as a feel-good hit at the end of 2015 and I did everything in my power to obtain a copy for free on or before the release date – through competitions, requesting from the publisher, you name it! – before I gave in and just bought it.  Let’s check it out.

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Ten Second Synopsis:

Hester and Harriet, geriatric sisters, offer refuge to a young woman and her baby in an attempt to get out of having Christmas lunch with odious relatives. When their young nephew Ben turns up also requesting sanctuary, the term “silly season” comes into play, as the ladies and their charges grapple with international migration laws, ridiculously named private detectives and cleaning up after oneself in the kitchen.

Time on the TBR Shelf:

I can’t trace this exactly because I can’t remember where I bought it, but I suspect since late December 2015.

Acquired:

Purchased, either from the BD or possibly Booktopia or maybe Boomerang Books

Reason I haven’t read it yet:

  1. Laziness
  2. Fear that it wouldn’t live up to my expectations

Best Bits:

  • The young nephew character, Ben.  He is comic relief, a breath of fresh air and his growth through the novel is enjoyable to witness
  • The plot is perfect for an extended holiday or beach read.  Nothing too untoward happens and there are lots of quirky characters to get behind.
  • Finbar, the homeless classics master.  He was quite refreshing in his scenes and a handy source of new information.

Less Impressive Bits:

  • It’s slow.  There are lots of discussions between the two sisters that really slow down the action, and this, coupled with the fact that Daria is unnecessarily furtive about her past, means that new information must be wrung from the pages by clawing hands
  • I couldn’t tell the difference between Hester and Harriet.  One is good at cooking and one gets quite shirty about Ben using the kitchen (this is possibly the same sister), but given the two “H” names and not much of a difference in personality or manner between them, I just thought of them as a conglomerate old person spread over two bodies.
  • Finbar, the homeless classics master.  As well as being refreshing, he was also excessively verbose and a great candidate to have “GET ON WITH IT!” shouted at him.

On reflection, was this worth buying?

The more prudent part of my brain says that we would have enjoyed this just as well had we borrowed it from the library.  The generous part of my brain says that at least we can now make someone else happy by passing this impressively large and attractive paperback on.

Where to now for this tome?

It has already been passed along to someone who should enjoy it.

This is another chink off the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted by My Reader’s Block.

Mount TBR 2016

 

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

 

How Not To Disappear: A Top Book of 2016 Pick!

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Bruce's Pick

Ding Ding Ding! It’s another Top Book of 2016!

How Not to Disappear by Clare Furniss is a YA road-trip novel featuring dementia, secret pregnancy and lots and lots of gin slings.  We were lucky enough to receive a copy from Simon & Shuster Australia for review – thanks!  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Hattie’s summer isn’t going as planned. Her two best friends have abandoned her: Reuben has run off to Europe to “find himself” and Kat’s in Edinburgh with her new girlfriend. Meanwhile Hattie is stuck babysitting her twin siblings and dealing with endless drama around her mum’s wedding. Oh, and she’s also just discovered that she’s pregnant with Reuben’s baby… Then Gloria, Hattie’s great-aunt who no one previously knew even existed comes crashing into her life. Gloria’s fiercely independent, rather too fond of a gin sling and is in the early stages of dementia. Together the two of them set out on a road trip of self-discovery – Gloria to finally confront the secrets of her past before they are wiped from her memory forever and Hattie to face the hard choices that will determine her future.

how not to disappear

Apart from the excessive drinking that no one on the shelf (except for Shouty Doris) really goes in for, this book had everything we enjoy in a good novel:  England (Whitby in particular), road trips, poor decision making, flashbacks and snarky elderly ladies.  I’ll be honest with you – it was a slow-burn decision to nominate this book as a Top Book of 2016, but the ending is so sensitively written that it would be a travesty for us to leave it off the list.

The narrative moves back and forth between the present (narrated by Hattie) and the past (narrated by Gloria) and so the reader slowly discovers the events that have led Gloria to her current living conditions.  It is made clear from the start that Gloria’s past was not a happy place and as Hattie finds out more about Gloria and Gwen (Hattie’s grandmother), she begins to question whether or not the road trip down unhappy-memory lane was such a good idea.

It is obvious to the reader pretty early on that Gloria must have experienced some life events that might resonate with Hattie’s current condition and so it turns out to be.  The first half of the book unfolds much as one might expect it to, with Hattie wavering over what to do about her pregnancy, and Gloria wielding pointy, pointy words with a mastery that comes from a lifetime of practice.

It is the second half, or possibly final third, of this book which really sets it apart from the common herd.  For a start, there are a few twists in Gloria’s tale that I didn’t see coming until they were upon me, and Hattie’s character development goes into overdrive.  The final chapters, which focus on life for the two ladies post-road-trip are moving and authentic and really touched this old gargoyle’s stony heart.

The best recommendation for How Not To Disappear I can give is that it is a story that transcends its YA categorisation.  Sure, the main character is a young person, with young person friends, dealing with young person problems, but the story as a whole avoids YA tropes and clichés and allows Hattie to be read as a protagonist in an adult fiction novel.  If you are after a contemporary read that is funny, realistic and moving and approaches the legacy of damaged family ties with real authenticity then you could do a lot worse than picking up How Not to Disappear.

Until next time,

Bruce

An MG Maniacal Book Club Review (with Extra Gargoyle!): Stonebird….and a Giveaway!

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manical book club button

Welcome one and all to an extra gargoyley Maniacal Book Club review….and GIVEAWAY…for those living in Australia. Sorry everyone else, although I will have an international giveaway kicking off on Friday, so don’t feel too left out. I received a copy of today’s book from its lovely author, Mike Revell, who, on hearing of our stony nature here at the shelf, sent us a SIGNED ARC copy of his debut middle grade, UK fiction novel, Stonebird. Thanks Mr Mike!

For those wishing to enter the giveaway, the link is below the Club’s review. But I won’t keep everyone else waiting, so here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

When eleven-year-old Liam moves house to be closer to his grandma, he’s thrown into an unfamiliar place, with a family that seems to be falling apart. Liam doesn’t remember what Grandma was like before she became ill with dementia. He only knows the witch-like old woman who snaps and snarls and eats her birthday cards. He desperately wants to make everything better, but he can’t. Escaping the house one evening, Liam discovers an old stone gargoyle in a rundown church, and his life changes in impossible ways. The gargoyle is alive. It moves unseen in the night, acting out Liam’s stories. And stories can be dangerous things . . . But Grandma’s illness is getting worse, Liam’s mum isn’t coping, and his sister is skipping school. What if the gargoyle is the only thing that can save Liam’s family?

stonebird

Let’s hear from the Book Club!

Guru Dave  maniacal book club guru dave

So many lessons to be learned from the lonely child and the reclusive gargoyle! Can we ever be truly ourselves when we rely on another to fight our battles? To whom can one turn when one feels alone in a sea of hostility and confusion? What hope do we have when our parents need parenting? So many good hearts lost in the dark, wandering the alleyways of sorrow and grief and anger. And over them all watches a creature from another world, a warm heart beating in a chest of stone.

 

 

maniacal book club toothlessToothless

No dragons in this book. But there is a huge gargoyle, way bigger than Bruce and Guru Dave and he’s got red eyes and claws and everything! He’s like a protector guardian but he can get really scary too and if you cross Liam, Stonebird might chase you down and eat you! Well, maybe not eat you, but scratch you or something. There’s a cool dog in this book too – Liam’s dog, Jess. And there are some bullies who are really nasty – I wanted Stonebird to eat them. But he doesn’t. It was okay that there wasn’t a dragon in this book because Stonebird was just as cool as a dragon.

 

Mad Martha  maniacal book club martha

If you possessed a magic egg

what magic would it do?

Could your special magic egg

Your errors all undo?

Or would you use it just for good

and help those close to you?

Perhaps your enemies you’d smite

Your tormentors, subdue.

The choice is yours, and so ensure

You stop and think this through:

If you possessed a magic egg,

What magic would it do?

maniacal book club bruceBruce

I must start off by saying that Stonebird is a handsome old brute! Obviously, as a Bookshelf Gargoyle, I am of a different family of stone creature than Stonebird, but I do envy his stately proportions and ability to perch regally on rooftops. That aside, it was wonderful to read another book wherein my kin are central to the story. There are so few around and I’m not sure why, for we provide so much atmosphere and gravitas. But I digress.

Stonebird is of that exciting category of books that feature important and difficult subjects pitched at just the right level for a middle grade audience. In this particular case, Revell touches on dementia and the experience of grief, loss and confusion that can envelop those close to the sufferer even while the sufferer is still alive; bullying, its effects and possible causes; parenting, and the effects of prolonged stress on a parent’s ability to relate to their children; among other things. There is a lot going on here besides an exciting fantasy tale about a gargoyle who can protect a boy with the help of a possibly magical egg.

I’m going to mark this one down as magical realism, rather than fantasy, because while there are obviously fantastical elements, the focus of this book is the authentic portrayal of a young lad trying to solve problems that are beyond his age and ken. This could have been a great, engaging and thought-provoking read even without the addition of a (handsome, powerful) member of my species, but the magical elements provide the cherry on top of the icing on a cake of quality reading.

As the main character is male, and there is a significant plotline of boy-to-boy bullying running through Liam’s story arc, I am certain this will appeal to young male readers, while young female readers will be drawn in by the inclusion of a storyline relating to Liam’s grandmother in her early teen years. As a considerable amount of the story takes place in the classroom, this would also be a fantastically engaging pick as a class read-aloud for around grades five to seven.

If you only read one book featuring a strong, silent, gargoyley type this year, make it this one!

The Maniacal Book Club gives this book:

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Six thumbs up! (Guru Dave and I gave it two thumbs each…)

Now, for the giveaway! If you are an Australian resident, you are welcome to enter to win a paperback copy of Stonebird by Mike Revell. Just click on the Rafflecopter link below:

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Good luck!

*Bruce just ticked another book off Mount TBR!*

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Until next time,

Bruce (and the gang)

Adult Fiction Haiku Review: Elizabeth is Missing…

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It’s Mad Martha with you today to share a haiku review for a book that we have read recently and very much enjoyed.  Dealing, as it does, with senior citizens, we were already predisposed to feel affection towards it, but the writing and the plot have cemented this book as one which will remain with us for a long time (ironically, given the afflictions of the main character). I speak, of course, of Elizabeth is Missing, a contemporary literary fiction novel by Emma Healey.

The book follows the slow decline of Maud, an elderly lady who experiences a constant feeling of distress at the fact that her friend Elizabeth has gone missing, and this distress is exacerbated by the fact that no one seems to believe her.  Maud, it must be said, is also suffering from what can only be described as dementia, but despite forgetting to turn the cooker off, the names of her carers, and various other important facts of her day-to-day existence, the pressing need to find out where Elizabeth has got to consumes her waking mind.  As Maud’s condition deteriorates, she is drawn ever deeper into memories of her past, in which her older sister, Sukey, also mysteriously disappeared without trace shortly after the War.  While Maud’s daughter Helen does all she can to distract and reassure her ailing mother about the current mystery of Elizabeth’s whereabouts, nothing will stand in the way of the indomitable Maud as her disintegrating mind works to uncover the secrets that are being hidden from her.  With single-minded purpose, Maud continues on her quest to find Elizabeth, and in the process inadvertantly digs up some clues that may also help solve a family mystery that has persisted for rather longer.

elizabeth is missing

What was it again?

My friend, yes! She’s missing! Who?

Elizabeth? No…

Healey has done a fantastic job here of capturing the frustration, confusion and general sense of loss that accompany the decline of a once-agile mind without sinking any of her characters into a mire of depression.  From her own recollections of girlhood, we can tell that Maud has always had a curious and fairly tenacious personality and this is reflected in the character’s ever more drastic attempts to make people aware that Elizabeth is missing and that something must be done about it.  Helen, Maud’s daughter and carer, is realistically portrayed as a frustrated woman of middle-age trying to manage both teenage daughter and elderley mother simultaneously.  While I was reading I had the strongest feelings of resonance between the events and emotions portrayed in this fictional work with the events and emotions portrayed in the real-life memoir of Andrea Gillies, Keeper: One House, Three Generations and A Journey into Alzheimer’s,  in which Gillies describes being a full-time carer for her mother-in-law.  Despite Maud’s hot-and-cold relationship with Helen as her disease progresses, Healey never demonises Helen but, I think, strikes a nice balance between the frustration of the declining and the frustration of the carer.

My favourite relationship here is that between Maud and her grand-daughter Katy – throughout the book Maud has a hit-and-miss record of remembering who Katy is, but it is obvious that Katy, slightly rebellious teenager that she is, is the only one prepared to meet Maud where she’s at.  The two have some brilliant conversations in which the patronising tone of other adults in the book towards Maud is completely absent and it’s delightful to see how this simple dynamic changes Maud’s outlook and reminds her that she is still a functioning individual on many levels.

Apart from the fantastic characterisation in the book, the mystery of Elizabeth has a nice arc of suspense to it.  Although as the story moves on, the reader can make some educated guesses about Elizabeth’s whereabouts, the final reveal is compounded by this new (old) mystery of the disappearence of Maud’s older sister.  There’s a good sense of balance played out between the two mysteries – as one begins to wind down in the mind of the reader, the other is picked up, creating a continuous sense of puzzlement that is reflected in both Maud’s actions and the actions of those around her.

Overall, this was a thoroughly enjoyable read with a clever twist on your standard cosy-type mystery.  Although there is a bit of humour peppered throughout the book, it felt to me to be quite a dense read, so I would suggest picking it up when you have plenty of time to unravel the threads of memory along with Maud.

Until we meet again, may your ration books be plump and juicy and your marrows be ever filled with stamps…or something like that, anyway.

Mad Martha

* I received a digital copy of Elizabeth is Missing from the publisher via Netgalley *

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Fiction in 50 May Challenge: What Comes After…

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fiction in 50

It’s that time again! This month’s Fiction in 50 prompt is…

what comes after button

…so create those mini-narratives in 50 words or less and link them up to the linky below, or leave the link or your finished work in the comments.  If you’d like a more detailed description of the task, just click on that attractive button at the start of this post. Here’s this month’s linky:

And here’s my contribution – I’ve titled it….

Unremembered

They brought her out here often enough, though they knew it made no difference to her where she was. Sitting under the tree her fingers played over deep cuts in the bark.

G. K + T. M

A blink-and-you’ll-miss-it spark lit up her cloudy eyes.

And then it was gone.

 

Your turn! 

The prompt for June is…

 

upper hand button

This is the final prompt for this set of six months, so it’s your last chance to suggest a prompt for our next set of six monthly challenges.  Just pop your suggestions in the comments and I’ll do my best to squeeze them in.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

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