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review 2018-03-15 22:52
"Anything Is Possible" by Elizabeth Strout
Anything Is Possible - Elizabeth Strout

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this novel is how readable it is. I found myself having to ration out the book so that I wouldn't consume it in a single sitting.


Yet this isn't page-turning in the conventional sense. There's no complex and clever plot to unravel, no sense of threat or intrigue to tease yourself with page after page. There is just life as we all live it.


What makes it compelling is not that I want to know what happens next but that I want to know these people and, in the process, I want to know more about how their experiences mirror mine.


In each chapter, I get to walk a mile in someone else's shoes. It's not a first-person experience but rather a guided tour with the authorial voice capturing every emotion, memory and reaction with an empathy so deep you could drown in it.


The book opens with an eighty-three-year-old man driving into town to buy his wife a birthday present and then stopping in on a neighbour on his way home. That's it as far as action goes yet during this ride I found out about the events that shaped this man's life, about his beliefs and his hopes, about his attachment to the bright but fearful and isolated Lucy Barton who was once a student at the school he was a janitor in and who now lives in New York City and is a writer of well-known books. I came to understand his ability to "live through" disaster, his impulse to help others and the relationship he believes he has with God.


There's a whole novel, just in that one chapter. Each of the other eight chapters is like that, sweeping me along not just in someone's story but in their current experience and choices. Each chapter focuses on someone who was in the supporting cast of characters when Lucy Barton was recalling her childhood in *My Name Is Lucy Barton", In "Anything Is Possible", each of them gets to be centre-stage for a while, the prime mover in their own universe. Each universe exercises a gravitational pull on at least one of the other universes in the book.


Each of the nine chapters could be seen as the free-standing short story describing how an individual sees the world, but we're being offered more than a quilt of nine squares here. This is a novel with a consistent authorial voice, leading us through the thoughts and emotions of the characters in the story and in the process, highlighting the themes that connect them and all of us as we try to live our lives.


I see this novel as a three-dimensional piece of art that, although the eye first reads it from left to right, becomes something non-linear: a set of lens viewing a common space but from different angles and different focal lengths. From their different perspectives, the chapters describe a central space, that we all recognise and share but can rarely regard clearly because we are so tangled up in our own story. It's a place where our hope, shame, anger, love, compassion and desires meet.


That all sounds rather complicated and perhaps a little dry but the experience of reading the book is one of easy access to sometimes painfully accurate experiences that resonate as real. Each room in the house is welcoming and built on a human scale. The true nature of the architecture only dawns on you later.


This is a book that, as one of the characters says of Lucy  Barton's novel, "made her feel understood and less alone". There are big themes here but I believe the main one is that, while all our lives are unique, we do not have to be alone if we are prepared to forgive ourselves and others.


One of the themes of the book is the nature of love. One character sums it up by saying:

We’re all just a mess, Angelina, trying as hard we can. We love imperfectly, Angelina, and it’s ok.

One of my favourite characters, the youngest of the Pretty Nicely sisters, now sometimes called Fatty Patty by the children at the school she works in, understands that empathy is difficult because we are too self-absorbed to make space for it:

Everyone,she understood, was mainly and mostly interested in themselves.

She also understands that love is what breaks down the walls of our isolation and allows us to be better. She refers to it as a protective skin:

This was the skin that protected you from the world, this loving of another person you shared your life with.

The characters show us that we all love imperfectly BUT that it is still possible to choose our own path, to change the plot of our own story and to influence the stories of others.


One of the things that occupies the central space that the stories share is how our past shapes us. In the final chapter, the main character, once poor and now rich, is puzzled by the power of his past to shape his present:

"What puzzled Able about life was how much one forgot but then lived with anyway, like a phantom limb"

In these stories, shame plays a huge part in shaping people's perception of themselves and others. Shame walks hand in hand with attitudes to class. Both create ostracism, disempowerment, unkindness, and derision. They make some people less real than others. They erode self-worth and foster abuse.


Violence, whether we commit it or are on the receiving end of it, also leaves permanent scars, whether it's PTSD from acts committed during a war or being subject to violent abuse throughout childhood.


I found one of the hardest chapters to experience was the one where Lucy Barton comes home and meets with her brother and her sisters in the tiny house they all suffered through their childhood in. The present pain caused by past abuse is almost unbearable. When the talk turns to the terrible things their parents did, Lucy cries out in denial and says "It wasn't that bad", all the while knowing that it was.


This is one of a number of examples that show how hard it is for us to see clearly, to remember honestly (or at all), and to focus on the important choices in our lives.


The message I took away from the book is that living through things we don't is unavoidable. Life cannot be pain-free. We live and love imperfectly. We drag our past after us. Compassion, forgiveness and kindness are the best salves available to us.

I think this book will become a classic. I highly recommend it.


If you'd like to get an insight into what Elizabeth Strout thinks of her novel, read the interviews below.



Seattle Times article "Talking to author Elizabeth Strout about her new novel, ‘Anything Is Possible"  where Elizabeth Strout explains how she wrote the book and comments on some of the themes in it.


Interview with Penguin Books where she talks about her hope that her books will make people feel less alone.




I listened to the audiobook, which was perfectly performed by Kimberly Farr. Click on the SoundCloud link below to listen to a sample of her performance.


[soundcloud url="https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/319870206" params="color=#ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&show_teaser=true&visual=true" width="100%" height="300" iframe="true" /]

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review 2018-03-13 09:38
"Rosemary and Rue - October Daye #1" by Seanan McGuire
Rosemary and Rue - Seanan McGuire,Mary Robinette Kowal

"Rosemary and Rue", the first book of the October Daye series, is an extraordinary piece of Urban Fantasy. It is sombre, complex and well written, a combination I can't resist.


The series was recommended to me as an Urban Fantasy must-read, otherwise, I wouldn't have bothered with a series centred around the Fae. Fae Fantasy seems to bring out a rose-tinted, undisciplined, acid-high hippy mindset that I have no sympathy for or it becomes a vehicle for New Adult eroticism that, even when it's done well, leaves me wanting either to laugh or to wash my hands.


The blurb wasn't encouraging, with references to Ladies and Knights and a reluctant half-blood fae PI. Yawn.


The title intrigued me. It has a Shakespearian feel to it. Rosemary and rue are two of the flowers in Ophelia's bouquet. Rosemary is for remembrance and rue is for repentance. That suggested I wasn't in for a happy-ever-after read, so I bought the audiobook version and settled down to listen.


From the beginning, it was clear that this was not a normal Urban Fantasy story with a kiss-ass heroine whose magical powers and strength of personality allow her to triumph against overwhelming odds and live to fight another day, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.

October Daye is not a heroine. She's just someone trying to find a place for herself in the two worlds her half-fae half-human blood straddle. Finding a place is more about survival than ambition. October lives in a world where failure has consequences and success has a price. It is grim, unforgiving and relentless.


At the start of the book, October fails and is made to suffer consequences that would crush most of us. One of the things I admired about the book is that Seanan McGuire doesn't let her characters off the hook. Consequences are to be lived with like wounds and scars.


At first, the book seems to be about October being forced by a curse to solve the murder of a Pure-Blood Fae or die in the attempt. On this level, the book is a little flat. October bounces around the problem like a pinball, never in control and always being thrown against hard surfaces. I thought Seanan McGuire had taken Chandler's advice:

"When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand."

In line with the actions-have-consequences mindset, October spends as much time recovering from being hurt as she does investigating the death.


As the book progressed, I realised that the real focus of the story was October herself. She is made to re-examine the life she had before a mistake cost her everything. With each bounce of the pinball, we learn more about October's world and she learns more about herself.


What she learns and what she does with it bring us back to the "Rosemary and Rue" of the title: she honours her past, assessing it without nostalgia; she repents her failures without wallowing in regret and she moves on. October knows that while the life you've lived explains the scars you carry, it is your choices about what to do next that makes being alive worthwhile. The choices she makes show an acceptance of "the balance of her blood" rather than a desire to be someone else. It's a good start.


The world.building in "Rosemary and Rue" is skilfull and original. October takes for granted abuse of power and levels of punishment that makes the "magical" world very far away from Disney Princesses and much closer to the Brothers Grimm. To me it seemed to be to Urban Fantasy what Cyberpunk was to Science Fiction - a grimier, more credible version that was less about escapism and more about mirroring how the normal world works.


Seanan McGuireSo now I'm a fan of Seanan McGuire with a lot of good books to look forward to.


I've bought, "A Local Habitation", the next book in the series and "Discount Armaggedon", the first book in the InCryptid series.



Mary Robinette KowalI strongly recommend the audiobook version of "Rosemary and Rue". Mary Robinette Kowal's narration is pretty close to perfect. She amplifies the unusual rhythms of the prose and gives October a unique voice.


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review 2018-03-09 22:29
"Husbands And Other Sharp Objects" by Marilyn Simon Rothstein - DNF - abandoned at 15%
Husbands and Other Sharp Objects - Marilyn Simon Rothstein

I bought "Husbands And Other Sharp Objects" because the title was clever, the book cover was attractive and the premise - a woman about to be divorced whose husband wants her back and who has to arrange her daughter's wedding, seemed ripe with opportunities for humour.


I was hoping for something original and quirky, like "The Bette Davis Club".

The beginning showed promise. I liked this throwaway line:

"Gumption should be taught in every school. Gumption is more important that geography because, even if you can read the map, you're not going anywhere without gumption."

Humour is a very personal thing and is mercilessly binary: it's either funny or it's not. Some readers might describe this book slickly self-deprecating and sophisticated. I found it smug and superficial.


I found the main character to be shallow. There were too many descriptions of what everyone was wearing and whether or not they were attractive. The banter was a little stiff. The narrator over-emoted and read more slowly than I'd have liked.


I stuck it out for an hour and twenty minutes and then decided that this book just isn't my sort of thing.


Maybe it will be more to your taste than mine. Take a listen to the SoundCloud link below and see what you think.


[soundcloud url="https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/409501413" params="color=#ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&show_teaser=true&visual=true" width="100%" height="300" iframe="true" /]



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text 2018-03-08 22:28
Dog On It - Chet and Bernie Mystery #1 -Reading progress update: I've read 10%.
Dog on It (A Chet and Bernie Mystery, #1) - Spencer Quinn

Normally, if you give me a first-person narrative from a dog's point of view, I'll just bliss out like a Lab having its ears scratched until its all over but this one is starting slow and Chet, the dog, isn't quite convincing me.


I'm giving it one more hour to make me wag my non-existent tail, then I'm throwing in the leash.

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review 2018-03-07 22:25
"The Chalk Man" by C J Tudor - atmospheric British thriller
The Chalk Man - C.J. Tudor


"The Chalk Man" is a thriller set in a small English town and told in two timelines: the summer of 1986, when the main characters are twelve year's old, and forty years later when someone challenges what really happened in 1986.


It is a very atmospheric piece that captures both the feel of being twelve in 1986 and the reality of having lived in the same provincial town, with the same people, for forty years.


Initially, the 1986 timeline in "The Chalk Man" reminded me of Stephen King's novella "The Body", which was made into the movie "Stand By Me". It had a similar intensity but a much more British feel and the dynamic was altered because the group of twelve-year-olds included a girl.  The 2016 storyline was too bleak and filled with too much self-loathing to be a King story. I found both the fear in 1986 and the despair in 2016 very believable.


"The Chalk Man" has a plot, constructed around violence, secrets, fear, transgression and revenge, that is intricate and not fully disclosed until the final chapter.


Yet it is not the plot but the depth of the characterisation of Eddie as child and man that makes the book special. Both timelines are told from Eddie's point of view. In 1986 he seems, at first glance, to be a bright, curious boy. In 2016 he is a defeated man, with a weakness for drink, doing a job he has no passion for and still living in the house he grew up in. As time goes by, it becomes clear that Eddie is more complicated than that and that his memory and therefore his version of events, may not be entirely reliable.


This is a story where people are not who they seem to be, either because they lie or their memories lie for them. Discovering the truth becomes a complicated business, leading me eventually to realise that the real truth was not about who killed whom but about the web of lies and memories that had bound the four main characters together for over forty years.


This is an engaging, page-turning, read, I listened to the audiobook version which was narrated by Andrew Scott as the 2016 Eddie and Asa Butterfield as the 1986 Eddie. Both gave great performances although I did experience a little dissonance because the grown-up Eddie speaks with an Irish accent that the young Eddie didn't have.




"The Chalk Man" is C J Tudor's first novel. You can read an interview with her about how she wrote the book HERE


You can also hear her discuss her book on the YouTube video below



[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8QZ7e9WctQk&w=560&h=315]



Click on the SoundCloud link below to get a sample of the audiobook narration.


[soundcloud url="https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/389363337" params="color=#ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&show_teaser=true&visual=true" width="100%" height="300" iframe="true" /]

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