Saturday, June 28, 2014

Conditions of the Heart

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

They don't make men like Ove anymore. He's just a man who worked at his job and loved his wife. Now at 59, forced into early retirement not long after his wife died, there nothing left to live for. That's when Ove decides to do something about it, but one thing or another keeps gets in his way.

This is yet another "if you liked the Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, you'll love this" book. But just as I noted in my review of The Extra Ordinary Life of Frank Derrick, Age 81, Ove is no Harold Fry, and nor are either of them Frank Derrick. If pressed, I'd say that Ove is more like Harold Fry than Frank Derrick. Of course, the most obvious thing that these three men have in common is that they are older men. Notice I didn't call them "old men" here, because despite whatever ages they may be chronologically, none of them meet my criteria for being totally old. This is mostly because they each have a purpose and each of their stories tells us how they go about trying to achieve what they aim to do. In Ove's case, what he's trying to do is kill himself so he can be reunited with the only person who ever "got" him, his wife Sonja.

Ove is actually the youngest of these three, and despite everything Ove does to keep people at arm's length and even push them away, he's possibly the most likeable of them all. In fact, his angry demeanor, gruff way of speaking, stubbornly opinionated attitudes of right and wrong and distaste for almost everyone and everything "these days" are exactly what make us love him so much. Yes, he can be frustratingly obstinate and often caught in the past with grudges he holds onto with dear life. In fact, most people will only think of him as an angry and bitter man, and keep their distance. But what he doesn't realize is that what endears him to us is that he doesn't sit around and complain; he goes out of his way to do something about the injustice and incompetency he finds around him. In short, he is a truly honest and straightforward man who lives by his principles, even if some of them might seem outdated, old fashioned or just plain stupid.

I should mention that this is a novel translated from the Swedish, but that is the last thing that should put anyone off. The translator here, Henning Koch, has done a beautiful job in bringing all of Backman's charm and humor to the fore; so that we hardly feel that this is a translation at all, and the references to Sweden and its culture are almost totally understandable. In fact, there's only one thing that didn't sit completely right with me, and that is Ove's age and his relationship to today's technology. The story is set in the present decade, and Ove is supposed to be only 59 years old. I find it hard to believe that someone only slightly older than me is so totally clueless regarding computers. Yes, I get that many people my age aren't as computer savvy as I am, but not quite to this extent. Of course, this does fit in with Ove's extremely old fashioned ways, so I'm willing to accept that perhaps there are some people in my age bracket that could be so anti-modernity.

However, this one tiny niggle is the only drawback of this whole book. Backman's story is amazingly engrossing from start to finish, and if you can read the last chapters without shedding a tear (or like me, blubbering like a little baby), then you have the hardest heart of anyone in the universe. And until you get to the end, you'll be giggling like a school-girl if not laughing out loud. All told, I predict that anyone who reads "A Man Called Ove" by Fredrik Backman will fall in love with this story and Ove himself, and for that it deserves a full and hearty five out of five stars! (And I can hardly wait to read his next novel!)

"A Man Called Ove" by Fredrik Backman published July 3, 2014 is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (for other eReader formats), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for giving me an advance reader's copy via NetGalley. A version of this review appears on my Times of Israel blog, which was revised from my review that originally appeared on {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network.

Monday, June 9, 2014

The 12 Days of Kelly Christmas

The Extra Ordinary Life of Frank Derrick, Age 81 by J.B. Morrison

Turning 81 is not a remarkable event, unless a milk float runs you down, giving you a concussion, breaking your arm and fracturing a bone in your foot. When this happened to Frank Derrick, he probably said nothing more than "ouch." Frank's daughter, however, thinks he needs some home help during his recovery. The last think Frank wants is weekly visits from with some bossy woman who would possibly scare (or even look like) Margret Thatcher. Then the pretty, 27 year-old Kelly Christmas shows up at his door, and the only thing he's sure of is that this isn't what he was expecting - and that's a good thing.

First, let me say that Frank Derrick is not Harold Fry (although if you liked his unlikely pilgrimage, you'll probably enjoy this book as well). Frank Derrick is a lonely, widowed pensioner living with his cat Bill underneath the flight pathway of Gatwick Airport, with his only daughter living in America. However, unlike your typical grandfather, Frank isn't quite as out-of-touch with today's world as many writers like to make their older characters out to be. Yes, his memory isn't quite what it used to be, and there are things that anger, confuse him or make him wary of their value, but he's hardly helpless (except with his finances). He's adept with his cell phone (including texting), has a collection of movies on DVD, can surf the internet (on the library's computers) and would prefer to listen to the Beatles or the Sex Pistols than songs from the WWII era. In fact, he doesn't like people thinking of him as an elderly person - because he's cool.

This is what makes Frank so realistic, and Morrison makes us adore him from the onset, even when he's being pigheaded or doing something he knows is stupid. Sure, he doesn't have a much to occupy his time, doesn't eat healthily and wastes his money. Even so, he actually takes overall good care of himself, somewhat. Of course, a fractured foot and broken arm do make his life more difficult, and that's what Kelly is there to help with - but only for 12 weekly visits. The limited time Kelly has with him makes Frank believe that his life has never been extraordinary, but rather it's always been extra ordinary, and that's something Kelly might change.

The thing that struck me the most about this book was how smoothly it all flowed, like a song. (That Morrison is also a musician with his own band means this is comes as no surprise.) While the language isn't in the least bit poetic, it still had a lyrical feel to it. Mind you, some of the lyrics were as stark as a rock song, but this fit Frank's character perfectly. This carried through the whole novel, including the ending, which - surprisingly enough - rather than crashing to a close, faded out like the echoes of a final chord. With that, we leave Frank wondering what, if anything will change in his future, but sure that Kelly has done more than simply help with his physical recovery from the accident.

As you can see, Frank is obviously a beautifully crafted and lovingly written character, the study of whom delves into the elements of friendship and loneliness. This includes delving into the relationships between the young and the elderly - both on professional and personal levels. While admittedly, there are some very poignant scenes here; Morrison tempers this with just the right amounts of humor, so you'll find yourself smiling from start to finish. Together with the honesty that Morrison brings to Frank, this becomes a truly endearing story and the type of character you'll hope to meet some day. For all this, I have to give this novel a full five stars out of five, and highly recommend it. 

"The Extra Ordinary Life of Frank Derrick, Age 81" by J.B. Morrison, released June 5, 2014 by Pan Macmillan (Pan Books), is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books, Kobo audiobooks, eBooks, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), as well as new or used from Better World Books or Alibris, or an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an advance reader copy of this novel via NetGalley. This is a revised version of the review that originally appeared on {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network and my Times of Israel Blog.

Friday, June 6, 2014

A Dazzling Dozen of Speakeasy Sisters

The Girls of the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine

Every one of the 12 Hamilton sisters have been shuttered away from the world since the day they were born. With no boys as his heir, their father wants to make sure his girls stay unsullied until he can marry them off and be rid of them. But their determination to find some freedom is stronger than their fear of their father - who most of them have never even met. It is Josephine, the eldest, who figures out how to escape their jail. The danger of going to speakeasies during prohibition in New York only makes it more exciting and appealing. Eventually, these dozen girls are going out every night to dance their troubles away. But despite the extreme lengths of discretion and secrecy they go to, there is always something (or someone) lurking that could trap them and end it all. This is "The Girls at the Kingfisher Club" by Genevieve Valentine.

Astute readers of this plot summary might guess that this is a modern-day telling of the Grimm fairy tale "The Twelve Dancing Princesses." What is most surprising about this version is that Valentine never once takes her retelling out of the realm of reality; not even for one miraculous stunt out of left-field to save the girls. This is probably Valentine's greatest accomplishment in what certainly is an ambitious undertaking. Of course, placing these girls in prohibition era New York was also a stroke of genius. What other era could give a dozen girls places to dance through the soles of their shoes? To this, she added the double edged danger of being caught between defying their father by sneaking out to venues which are at risk of being raided by the police.

All of this screams brilliance, and certainly Valentine set herself up with all the necessary elements for success. Unfortunately, something got a bit lost between the concept and the execution. While the overall story held together quite well, the telling of it got bogged down with too much background included in more than the first half of this book. This, together with the excessive use of parenthetical remarks almost made me stop reading before I got to the climax. Thankfully, something made me keep reading and when this part finally came, I was pleased to see that Valentine got down to business and things started getting exciting. I was hoping that the energy from there would continue to the end, but she had to keep track of all these girls. Because of this, as she approached the conclusion, the story once again became overly detailed, if only slightly. I think Valentine should have considered ending the novel sooner after the climax and then giving us an epilogue from about a year after that.

I think that the thing that made me keep reading, despite the problems I had with this book was Valentine's style. Her writing has a very appropriate feel to it which beautifully melded the fairy tale atmosphere with the flapper era language in which she set her story, despite the overused parentheses (or maybe because of them). For an award winning Science Fiction and Fantasy writer, Valentine certainly adapted herself quite well to this reality-based, historical fiction novel. In fact, I do hope that she gives this genre a second shot, since I'm sure she can get out the kinks and really pull off a modernized fairy tale with full force. "The Girls at the Kingfisher Club" by Genevieve Valentine is a book that will surely appeal to many people, but as much as I wished I could recommend it higher, I can only give it three out of five stars. 

"The Girls at the Kingfisher Club" by Genevieve Valentine, published by Atria Books (a division of Simon & Schuster) and released on June 3, 2014 is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you. My thanks to the publishers for sending me a review copy via NetGalley. 

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