Thursday, July 31, 2014

Capturing Children's Imaginations with Mozart's Golden Notes

"The Case of the Haunted Swamp" by Cliff MacGillivray and Kelly Ward, illustrated by Phil Mendez

Legend has it that Mozart wrote his "Perfect Symphony" using gold ink. But as soon as the ink had dried, the notes magically came alive and flew right off the page, scattering themselves across the world. Over two hundred and twenty years later, the grizzly bear musical philanthropist, Lionel T. Hollingsworth wants to capture them and return them to the empty sheet music. He's hired the famous mouse detective, and musical genius, T. W. Strouse to find them, and he thinks the first ones are haunting his own old homestead on the bayou in Louisiana. This is the first in the series of "Note Hunter" children's books, "The Case of the Haunted Swamp" by Cliff MacGillivray and Kelly Ward.

Disclaimer: I don't usually read or review children's books, since my children are all fully-grown adults, and I don't have any grandchildren (yet). But if you throw the name Mozart into any story, I simply can't resist, no matter the genre. Therefore, your patience with this review is hereby respectfully, requested.

This book seems to be just about right for children aged about eight. Although some of the material here is somewhat sophisticated, due to the classical music elements, it still has a child-like quality, with all the characters being animals. This is truly a clever combination that will appeal to animal loving children while also satisfying any music loving parents. Of course, a mystery is something that most children (and many adults) can appreciate, as it will keep their attention by answers today's younger readers' needs for a good heaping of "action." As far as this story goes, the plot has just enough twists and cliff-hanging scenes to satisfy both children and parents, alike. Equally as important, the writing seemed to be of a proper level for this age group, and flowed nicely throughout.

For this age group of new readers, having illustrations is certainly another draw (no pun intended). With them, children won't feel overwhelmed by too much text, while at the same time, their inclusion will urge them to keep reading so they can better understand what is being depicted. The art here is absolutely top-notch, professional, and strongly reminiscent of classic cartoons (no surprise, considering the backgrounds of the illustrator and colorist). Furthermore, they are perfectly attuned with the story, both complimenting it and making it all the more compelling.

With all this praise, you might be wondering if I thought there were any drawbacks with this book. In fact, there were a few things that didn't sit completely right with me. The first was that I found some places where the writers explained certain terms or phrases, which I thought were unnecessary. I truly believe that most kids of this age will understand what they were getting at, and the explanations might annoy them as being condescending. Those that don't get those bits can easily ask an adult to explain, and that will mean they'll be learning something (which is always a good thing). Thankfully, there were only about three or four instances of this, so this isn't a huge problem.

My other problem with this book is my own personal pet peeve. Personally, I have a problem with worlds that are almost exactly like own, but built and developed by beings that - in most cases - don't have opposable thumbs. This was one of the reasons why I didn't like the movie "Cars," for instance. On the other hand, I am willing to accept animals living in a human world and having their own human-like lives and adventures against that backdrop (a la "Ratatouille," as an example). That said I'm sure that this won't bother most eight-year-old kids, unless they're terribly precocious, and in that case, this book won't be for them anyway.

Lastly, this is definitely a boy's book. Not that there's anything wrong with that. However, some women (mothers in particular) might not appreciate how the female characters here are portrayed. With one exception, they come dangerously close to being stereotypes and don't seem to be all that important to the plot. I might be over sensitive about this, but the writers might want to consider including a strong, central female character into their next story.

Those niggles aside, I found this book to be delightful, with fun characters, a good plot, lots of action and beautifully rendered illustrations. While it isn't perfect, it certainly is an excellent first book in what I am sure will become a very popular series with this age group. For all that, I'm going to give it a healthy four out of five stars and recommend it to any parent of a mystery loving child who wants to encourage them to read more.

"The Case of the Haunted Swamp" written by Cliff MacGillivray and Kelly Ward, illustrated by Phil Mendez. This is the first in the "Note Hunter" series for children aged 8 and above, and was published on March 3, 2014 by Beet Fizz LLC and Amazon Digital Services, Inc., and is available from Amazon US and Amazon UK. My thanks to the authors for sending me a review copy (via a mutual friend).

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Presto, a Perfect Book!

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O'Farrell

The mental institution that housed Euphemia Esme Lennox since she was 16 is closing down. After over 60 years being there, Esme has almost no relatives who could help. The one person they find is her great-niece, Iris Lockheart. The problem is that Iris didn't even know Esme existed, so she has a double dilemma - what to do with her elderly great-aunt, and how can she find out why the family never mention her. This is the basis for Maggie O'Farrell's novel "The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox."

The phrase "once in a blue moon" comes to mind when I think about this book. I say that because it is only that often that one finds a truly original writer and a truly beautifully written book that feels so right. Of course, this makes reviewing the book all the more difficult, since my enthusiasm may not give my readers the right impression of this book. But then again, how can I not review a book that I love so much?

The first thing you'll notice about this book is the beauty of the prose. O'Farrell uses deceptively simple language to paint pictures of the action. The opening paragraph describes two girls at a dance, and immediately we know how different these two girls are in personality. Also within that paragraph, we discover this is a flashback, with the next paragraphs bringing us into present day as smoothly as a perfectly faded-in movie scene. No long explanations, no descriptions to plod through, just unadorned words, all presented in a straightforward and clear fashion.

Within the first few pages, we already feel that we know quite a bit about Esme, and both her past in India and Scotland as well as her present in the asylum. Here's someone who was headstrong and independent at a time when young girls were supposed to be quiet, withdrawn women. Today, locked up with some crazy people, we see that Esme is also an old woman, clutching at the memories of those painfully few years of youth and freedom, and she seems far more trapped than insane.

Then, only a few pages later, when there's a break in the text, we meet Iris and her own, less than trouble-free life. We quickly realize being responsible for her heretofore-unknown great-aunt that even her mother in Australia has never heard of, is only going to compound Iris' problems. Then there's Iris's affair with a married man, along with her unusual (almost incestuous) closeness to her (also married) stepbrother. We also find out that her father died when she was young and she owns a second-hand shop. What's more, the only link to this mysterious new relative is Iris' Alzheimer-ridden grandmother, Kitty, Esme's sister. All this comes with a frugal economy of prose, stunningly woven, within Esme's parts of the story - and you haven't even finished 30 pages yet!

The story comes together like a perfectly choreographed ballet, with each of the main dancers showing you their steps only when the time is right. O'Farrell does this with many methods, and using mostly third-person certainly helps us feel we have an overview of everything that is unfolding here. Something particularly unique here is how she cuts between parts of her story by stopping the narration in mid-thought and then immediately picking up with someone else, almost in mid-thought. This may sound confusing, but by then, we know these characters so well, we can quickly figure out who is the focus in each bit. This technique also points up Kitty's Alzheimer's, Esme's grappling to preserve her sanity and memories, and even Iris's puzzling to discover the truth behind their histories. All this comes together in an amazing "pas-de-trois" climax and shocking conclusion between these three women.

One of the best elements of this book is that after that climax, it doesn't then start tying up all the loose ends for a nice, neat package. That would have been contradictory to the rest of the book's style. I can safely say that this story finishes with the most perfect ending I've read in a very long while. The only other element of this book I want to mention is the title, which actually is more meaningful than it seems. This "vanishing act" is not only an indication of Esme's being made to "disappear" but it also doubles as one of Esme's own defense mechanisms - as when things are unpalatable to her, she withdraws from her surroundings. This is very realistic especially if you consider Esme's institutionalization as having probably been unwarranted, combined with other elements you'll only discover if you read the book - and read it, you must!

This is one of the most artistic and original piece of writing I've read in a very long time. The characters are drawn in both gentle and swift strokes, revealing far more about them in a few words than other authors do in whole volumes. The story line is as fascinating as a mystery novel, and equally as exciting to see how O'Farrell pieces it all together. The language is both beautiful and unpretentious, making the less than 300 pages just fly by. The only drawback with this book is that you'll want to both gobble it up, while also wanting to savor every single word. After that, of course I'm giving it a full five stars out of five.

"The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox" by Maggie O'Farrell is available from, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better WorldBooks as well as from an IndieBound store near you. (This is a version of the review that originally appeared on {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network as well as on Dooyoo under my username TheChocolateLady.)

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

A 21st Century Holden Caulfield?

"The Universe versus Alex Woods" by Gavin Extence

Alex Woods is probably one of the most remarkably famous people in the world. That's because he's only the second person in recorded history (after Ann Hodges) who survived being hit by a meteorite. Alex was only 10 at the time, and his meteorite struck him in the head. That he lived was nothing short of a miracle. With this begins a chain-reaction that includes getting epilepsy and being bullied in school, leading Alex to Mr. Peterson - the American recluse and widower. The publishers of this novel call this "a celebration of improbable accidents, astronomy and astrology, the works of Kurt Vonnegut and the unexpected connections that give life meaning." Well, I couldn't have summarized "The Universe versus Alex Woods" by Gavin Extence any better than that.

As the novel begins, Alex is 17 and detained at the border in Dover after having driven all the way from Zurich. After this confusing opening, Alex realizes that the only way people can get the true story - not the one the police or the media revealed in his case - is for him to start at the beginning. And this is how this coming-of-age story continues to full circle (and of course, just a little beyond).

My immediate reaction to this book was that Alex Woods is a 21st Century Holden Caulfield. For those of us who were forced to read "Catcher in the Rye" in school (no matter if you loved or hated it), let me point out the major differences between Alex and Holden. Holden was a tragic hero because much of what he hated about society the people around him was ironically the same things he refuses to see in his own character. Holden's rebellion and stubbornness bring upon his own misfortunes, and most of his self discovery has to do with his sexuality. His desire to be a "catcher in the rye" is a way for him to save children from adulthood, as he wishes not to grow up, but can't avoid it. His poor academic achievements are in direct contrast to his intelligent narrative, but with a very naïve approach to life. Holden is abrasive and often crude, and despite his obvious love for certain people in his life, he does much to push them away and then is depressed by his loneliness.

Alex, on the other hand, begins with being a victim of circumstance that he was powerless to prevent. However, he never lets that spill into his personality. Although he doesn't always see how his own actions sometimes bring about the difficulties he faces, he also learns how to take control of his life and situation. We also appreciate how he tries to avoid certain confrontations. That his epilepsy keeps him back a year in school never once infers that he is any less intelligent than the level of the story he tells. Despite this, he appreciates the fact that there are those who might not understand everything he says, and offers explanations that are simplistic, and even somewhat child-like. These end up being very humorous passages, which endear him to the reader. And even as we watch him grow, he still has enough innocence about him to make us truly love him. In addition, while his situation distances him from being more socially adept with his peers (which he embraces), his connection with Mr. Peterson and the influence he has on Alex turns into a synergetic and positive relationship.

With all this, one might think that these two characters are more different than they are alike. One point where the two converge is in the story telling itself. These are both fully subjective, first person accounts that (for the most part) are chronologically correct. In addition, both go through a certain maturing process while overcoming adversity and difficult situations (which is, of course, the definition of a 'coming of age' novel). What makes Alex Woods most similar to Holden Caulfield is they both speak to their own generation, and they do it beautifully and truthfully.

While this might sound like it has "young adult" written all over it, let's be honest: how many adults didn't read the Harry Potter books (even if they hate to admit it)? And those books weren't extremely well written (especially the last ones). Here, on the other hand, we have a masterfully crafted piece of literature that will appeal to both older and younger adults. Extence excels with his character development, and his creativity in the plot show enormous talent. His language is both accessible and intelligent, with wit that is reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut's. It is fitting that Extence includes references to Vonnegut along with other quotes from well-known classic novels, all of which slide into the action perfectly.

With all this praise, I have to admit to one tiny point that seemed incongruous to me, but it is so insignificant that it isn't worth mentioning. With this debut novel, Gavin Extence has shown himself to be an author we should all be on the lookout for. So there is no doubt in my mind that this book is as close to genius as possible, and deserves a four and a half stars out of five.

"The Universe versus Alex Woods" by Gavin Extence is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), eBooks, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an advanced reader copy via NetGalley. (This is a version of the review that originally appeared on the website Dooyoo under my username TheChocolateLady.)

Sunday, July 27, 2014

A Haunting Read

"Anil’s Ghost" by Michael Ondaatje

Anil Tissera is a forensic archaeologist who was born in Sri Lanka (where author Michael Ondaatje also hails from). After having been an ex-patriot for nearly 15 years, a human rights commission asks her to investigate a gravesite in her home country. What she finds there, and the colleagues she works with, gets her tangled into a web of conspiracy and intrigue over the bones of a person she calls "Sailor" who she believes was a victim of the civil unrest during the 1980's and 1990's in that country.

As this was the much-awaited first novel since "The English Patient," there was quite a bit for Ondaatje to live up to here. While this is very different from that book, I don't think he let us down at all. What impresses the reader most about Ondaatje is ability to use language so artfully. His seemingly simple style is deceptively poetic, and draws us into Anil's life and experiences with glimpses from her past. These are what Ondaatje uses to build the character into one so well rounded that we feel we could almost pick her out in a crowd. Ondaatje uses brief descriptions of action, interspersed with flashbacks and thought processes to tell the story for him. While some might find this style slightly disjointed and choppy, Ondaatje makes it flow like a river, and as smooth as silk. This makes this novel so very readable, you may want to read it all again as soon as you've finished.

For those familiar with Ondaatje, the thing that will stand out most is how this novel is constructed compared to his previous work. Whereas Ondaatje used more elements of poetry in his earlier works, including having chapters made up of only a line or two, here he uses a more fleshed out literary style. This in no way lessens the beauty of the language he uses, and further confirms him as a master storyteller – no matter how he puts forth the action for his readers.

What helps this along is how we are caught up by tiny bits of information giving the reader extensive insight into the characters. For instance, early in the story we find that Anil isn't this woman's original name, but one she "took" from her brother. Apparently, the name Anil isn't a Sri Lankan name for a boy at all. Even so, the sound of the name appealed to her deeply. Because she was so passionate and adamant about this, when she decided she wanted to be Anil, the world accepted this without much of a bother. From this, we immediately understand what it is that makes Anil such a special person. As the story unfolds, her actions feel very characteristic for someone who would do such a thing.

By the way, the ghost in the title does not refer to a dead Anil. Indeed, the word ‘ghost’ never appears in the book. This begs the question: what ghost that is haunting Anil? That question has many answers. One answer is this ghost is the "Sailor" - the victim for whom she's trying to find some modicum of justice. Another idea is that the ghost is her own past; the Anil she was when she was when she lived in Sri Lanka, and the person feels has returned with this visit. It could also be the mysterious lover that she left behind or the mysteries underneath the surface of the local man she must work with. Any of these, and maybe all, may be correct. In truth, it really is the reader's decision.

In addition, Ondaatje is able to totally identify with this fascinating female character and bring her to life. It is very rare indeed that a male author can do such a good job with a female protagonist. What's more, this story is almost totally Anil's, and she deserves to be the focus of the author's efforts. Some might say this is so overly true that the other characters suffer because of it, but I didn't find this to detract from the story.

"Anil's Ghost" isn't a 'feel-good' uplifting story, but it will captivate you, as it transports you to a time and place that you've probably never visited, or read about before. Anil herself is a complex character; she evokes far more than what Ondaatje reveals about her. The plot is one that is both fascinating, and out of the ordinary. However, what really makes this a beautiful read is the spellbinding language that only Ondaatje can give us. For all this, I have to highly recommend "Anil's Ghost" and give it a full five stars out of five.

"Anil's Ghost" by Michael Ondaatje is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you. (This is a version of the review that originally appeared on the website Dooyoo under my username TheChocolateLady as well as {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network.)

Saturday, July 26, 2014

A Story of Sins and Fashion

The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger

Amanda Sachs has just gotten her first job out of college, but it’s not just any job; it's THE job that "millions of girls would kill for." She's the new junior assistant to Miranda Priestly, editor-in-chief of the world-famous fashion magazine, "Runway." The only problem is that Miranda is the most evil boss on earth, who only seems to adore tormenting her assistants and making everyone's lives a living hell. Even so, what won't a girl suffer if one year in purgatory could open the door to a job with the magazine of her dreams – "The New Yorker," but at what cost?

From that plot summary, I'm sure you're going to think immediately "chick-lit" and while I personally despise that label, I'm afraid that this book fits into that category perfectly. Seriously, a book about a young woman's struggles with her nasty female boss who takes away her entire personal life in the name of fashion could hardly be something you'd see a macho male reading, now could it? So yes, it's 100% pure, unadulterated "chick-lit," and anyone not looking for some fluffy, light reading material may close this review right now – I doubt you'll be interested in reading on (unless you're curious about my criticisms of this novel).

For those who are still intrigued, let me first say this – first-time author Lauren Weisberger does seem to know what she's talking about here. Apparently, she had a job working for a similarly vicious female editor at "Vogue" magazine. As we all know, any good author should "write what they know" and a story with some basis in reality often rings quite true. So while many of the harrowing experiences our protagonist goes through seem exaggerated, one can imagine such a demandingly malevolent boss and some of the hoops she puts people through as being quite close to reality.

The problem with this book is that torture chamber is the meat-and-potatoes of this story – Amanda's tribulations of her year's trial-by-fire in journalism (despite it being for a fashion magazine), and how this affects her and her personal life. While this can be amusing to read about, there is a point about two-thirds through the book where you might feel the urge to slap Amanda and tell her to either stop whining or get the hell out. Unfortunately, it goes on further than this, and that is this book's first major mistake.

The next major blunder here is that we are more involved with Amanda's hardships, than we are with Amanda. Sure, we feel some sympathy for her due to her plight, but aside from her lack of knowledge of the fashion world and her wish to be a 'real writer' for "The New Yorker" at (it seems) any cost, we really know very little about Amanda, the woman. Sure, we meet her parents, her boyfriend, her best friend her sister and brother-in-law, and even the cute writer (male) who seems attracted to her – but these are all terribly superficial in this book. These all receive a very light treatment throughout the story, right up until the climax. Even after this, we never really seem to get into anyone's skin – not Amanda's and not anyone else's.

What's more, even the wicked "Cruella DeVille" type antagonist doesn't get your blood boiling and you never really learn to hate her appropriately, because you never really get to know her. Sure, Weisberger describes her quirks and habits, but the behind-the-scenes of Miranda as a person is missing. We therefore make assumptions and unfortunately, find ourselves not quite hating her as much as it seems we should.

I was equally disappointed with the climax of this book which I felt wasn't dramatic enough. Sure, there is some drama there, but it's mostly one-sided and missing the counter-point drama from the other side that would give it a "wow" quality. It also had a milquetoast ending that left lots of unanswered questions and far too little closure. This is a real drawback for a book where all along you're looking for the big "ah-HAH, Gotcha!" and all you get instead is a simple "um…, okay." Even the small twist in the end that Weisberger includes isn't nearly sharp enough to satisfy.

On the other hand, I could find nothing at all to fault Lauren Weisberger's writing style. It is light, clear and literate, mixed with quite a few good bits of humor that never seem to fall flat, but it's hardly anything artistic. This means you have a very easy and quick read that is quite an entertaining distraction. The bottom line here is that this is "chick-lit," easy and fun to read, nicely written, but ultimately flawed as literature. If you're a woman looking for something mindless to read, then I wouldn't hesitate recommending it – although you are better off borrowing it from a library or friend, than buying it. On the other hand, you're a man, or a woman who prefers well developed plots and characters, and more literary fiction, then I'd say avoid this like the plague. I'll give it three stars out of five, but I can't totally recommend it, so I won't. 

"The Devil Wears Prada" by Lauren Weisberger is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you. (This is a version of the review that originally appeared on the website Dooyoo under my username TheChocolateLady, and {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network.) 

PS: I don't think the film version of this novel fixed any of the major problems of this book, except for Streep being nasty enough.

All about Alice; All about Us

After You'd Gone by Maggie O'Farrell

Alice is a woman very much in love after a terrible tragedy happens to her. The book starts with the line: “The day she would try to kill herself, she realized winter was coming again”. With an opening like that, there’s no way you won’t want to read on, and this perfect combination of foreboding and the mundane could easily become a classic “gotcha” opening sentence. But this book isn’t just about Alice and why she would want to kill herself. It’s also about her mother and sisters and even her grandmother. Of course, there are other characters involved, and they are a kaleidoscope of women with their strengths, weaknesses and the usual things that life throws at them, and how all these things shaped their lives. 

As a debut novel, I can see instantly why O’Farrell became such a huge success. The language here is stunningly beautiful, intelligent and evocative. O’Farrell knows how to show the reader what her characters are going through, and that creates an intimacy with them that blank descriptions can never achieve. What makes this even more powerful is that instead of going chronologically, she starts with the result of this suicide attempt – Alice being in a coma. This becomes a central focal point around which events of the past connect with the present. In this, O’Farrell hands us an intricate jigsaw puzzle, while giving us one piece at a time, until only at the end, can we see the whole picture. This is part and parcel of O'Farrell's unique voice. 

Having read O’Farrell’s fourth before reading this one, and I can see how she has developed as a writer. Here I noticed those little spots where she allowed herself to tell instead of show. I also could see and where she needed a more forceful internal editor. For instance, watching Alice suffer through the pain she’s in after the tragedy was just a bit too much. This is especially true because we’re not sure what that this tragedy is until we're about ¾ through the book. Although I liked how she kept us guessing, at one point I found myself saying “okay, we get it, so could you please tell us what happened already?” and that’s not such a good thing. This is the reason why I can’t give this book a full five stars.

While this is a book about women, it’s hardly chick-lit - at least not in the classic sense. By that, I mean the thankful absence of frivolities like fashion and shopping and parties, so we can concentrate on what makes these ordinary women’s lives into ones that fascinate us. And yes, these women are basically very ordinary. They don’t have perfect lives, jobs, homes or husbands. If you saw them on the street, you might never notice them, as their beauty isn't noteworthy. They are normal people that go through the types of things that anyone can recognize. This together with compelling language, the fascinating way she develops a story and depth in which she develops her characters bring her solidly into the realm of contemporary fiction. If you’re a guy who can appreciate that, you’ll enjoy O’Farrell’s work as much as the ladies will.

So yes, this is an excellent debut novel, and it is no wonder O’Farrell became instantly popular after its publication. It isn’t as good as her later ones, since it could have used some paring down to make it just a bit tighter and pointed. But her style is enticingly strong, her characters are vivid and how she weaves the past into the present is practically lyrical. This is also a surprisingly fast read, and you’ll find yourself soaking it up like a sponge. So while I’m giving it four out of five stars, I still highly recommend this novel as an excellent introduction to Maggie O’Farrell’s work in general.

After You'd Gone by Maggie O'Farrell
is available from, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you. (This is a version of a review that originally appeared on Dooyoo under my username TheChocolateLady.)

Friday, July 25, 2014

A Story of Vistas and Passions

Ardor: A Novel by Lily Prior

This is a story of love - misdirected love, unrequited love and love between people who, for one reason or another, never find a way to bring their mutual affection out into the open. What makes this story unusual is that at the center of this story is the love that a donkey has for a human! Yes, that's right. And one of the unique things about this story is that it is from the perspective of that donkey.

While this idea may seem innovative and interesting, it is important that readers can identify with the story. If the reader cannot relate to the character narrating the story, then the writer loses credibility and readers will feel disconnected. Fortunately, Prior was unable to keep this pretense up throughout the book and in her desire to write in third-person, omnipresent via the donkey, the "donkey" feel to it fell away during most of the action. While this may seem inconsistent, this actually works in her favor, as the occasional disturbances become fewer and farther between.

Prior also employs "magical reality" here; taking seemingly ordinary people and giving them or their surroundings extraordinary qualities, seeping into far more than just the main character. In fact, it is difficult to actually pinpoint one person (or animal, as the case may be) as being totally central to this story. If pressed, one could say that the main characters were the donkey, and the object of the donkey's affection. However, the story begins with the journey of a woman who comes into the village to find her twin sister, the men who fall in love with her, and their rivalry. Their parts are no less important to this book, and at times that the focus is mainly on them. There is also the magical effect of this woman's presence in the village, and how this influences the action of the story, both on the other people in the village and on the physical changes in the village itself.

Sounds a bit confusing, doesn't it, but imagine if you will, the way a hurricane or earthquake affects a town. People re-examine their lives, need to adjust and change, look at their pasts and towards their futures. This affects everyone in one way or another, even if in the end, people ignore what's going on around them and return to their old ways of living. This is basically the second theme of this book - how the unexpected effects different types of people. In this case, the event is the arrival of Fernanda Ponderosa to the small Italian village where her twin sister, Silvana lives.

Prior's fills her Italian setting with as much opulence as enchantments. Prior's love for Italy is obvious, and her descriptions of the surroundings verges on the delectable. When Prior describes some spot or view, one can easily visualize her words, and you'll find yourself almost transported to these vistas through her cunning use of language. Moreover, the land and climate of this unnamed village play no small role in this story. In fact, the weather, agriculture and flora seem to react to the action and both reflect and contradict the goings on within them, as if the country itself has become yet another character here. It's as if Prior is trying to give you a total 3-D effect to the printed word, and on many levels, this works well for her.

Prior's primary talent is describing a large cast of characters - and animals - with so much quirky and magical splendor. However, while there is a menagerie here, it is only the donkey that actually has a "speaking" part, and we only observe the rest of the zoo - thank goodness! Still, even with all these crowds, it is actually quite easy to keep track all the characters.

Finally, what book entitled "Ardor" could be devoid of love, passion and sex! Yes, there's lots of that, and a good deal of sensuality. However, it stops well short of being soft porn, so for the less graphically inclined, who prefer more suggestion than details in their romance won't be offended or let down.

The verdict here is that despite the slight lapse Lily Prior showed when using a non-human narrator, she still shows a special talent for storytelling. Prior can set the stage with a quick phrase or two and put us visually where she wants us. She has a way of suggesting the emotions of her characters without "bodice ripping" scenes. She also has a knack for making the usual into something special by giving her characters a generous touch of the mystical and supernatural. And she does all this while telling a complex story in a compact and interesting way. This is certainly a worthy effort, but deserves only four stars out of five; that donkey narrator is still a bit lame.

"Ardor" by Lily Prior is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you. (This is a version of a review that originally appeared on Dooyoo under my username TheChocolateLady, and {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network.)

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Oh, the tangled (ww)web we weave...

Kiss me First by Lottie Moggach

How many friends do you have on Facebook? How many of them are people you met online? How many are "real life" friends you haven't seen for months, maybe even years? I'm betting those people make up a pretty big percentage of your list. In fact, if your online life was your primary way of communicating with the world, that percentage might be pretty close to 100. But that doesn't mean these people don't care about you, and I'm certain you care about them. So, if you suddenly disappeared - stopped posting and liking and commenting - I'm betting that people would notice pretty quickly. Some people - maybe even most of them - would get quite upset. But… what if there was a way to disappear while your online life remained?

Leila, a veritable recluse after her mother's recent death from MS, narrates this novel. Through her involvement with the Internet forum called "Red Pill" (Matrix fans will get the reference), the site's leader, Adrian, approaches her with a proposition. Take over Tess's online life, so she can secretly commit suicide. But to do this properly, Leila has to get to know Tess so well, that she can literally become virtual Tess. Seems far-fetched? Not totally, and as the publisher's website states, "Kiss Me First asks a big question: how do we know who we're talking to online"? That website also has a link to the first interactive book trailer (go ahead, give it a try), which I have to admit, is what drew me to this book.

On the front of this book, Harper's Bazaar calls this "the first thriller to truly tackle a life lived online". I tend to agree with at least part of this assessment, that being looking into living in the online world. Leila's involvement with Tess and subsequent taking over her virtual life - not only with her permission, but also with her blessing - is certainly a fascinating twist. That means this isn't identity theft, at least not in any present criminal sense. It also raises the question of the morality of suicide, and whether we have either the right or the obligation to stop someone from committing it. Even more, this book investigates the lines between what we portray online and who we really are, and if those lines are closely blurred or an ever widening gap.

But philosophy and the law aside, we have to remember this is a novel - it is fiction. That there is a close proximity of the premise to our world today is what makes it so fascinating. And Moggach expertly brings all of this to the fore, with prose that is at the same time gritty and innocent. By this, I mean that Moggach portrays Leila as being young enough to be naïve about many things, but also the type of outsider who pushes people away, both intentionally and unintentionally. She feels rejected, but compensates for this by saying she doesn't need others. So when Adrian compliments her, she laps it up and it is no wonder that she buys into this elaborate scheme. This is how Moggach hooks us with Leila and then immediately grabs us with Tess through Leila's research into her life. But despite the sympathy, and even empathy, we feel for both Leila and Tess, Moggach also gives us some niggling doubts about both of them. That makes them both all the more human and their stories all the more mesmerizing. It is exactly what one would expect from a thriller novel, so bravo to Moggach for that.

However, I do have to say that I did have some problems with this book. The first was that I felt the climax wasn't quite what I was hoping to get. It just didn't have enough of that "oh, MY goodness, WOW" feeling I was expecting. There are, however, a couple of hefty "ohs" and "ahs" along the way and Moggach builds up to them smoothly, without rushing or holding back. I also felt that the conclusion after the climax felt a little tired and apologetic, as if Moggach was saying "sorry, but that's all there is; I have nothing more I can say". However, in her defense, one could say that Moggach is suggesting that while this experience changed Leila's life, it only did so somewhat, and in that, there is a glimmer of hope.

As a debut novel, this is certainly one of the better efforts I've read. I enjoyed Moggach's style enormously, and she has a true talent for both character and plot development. I was hoping for more of an all-out bang, but only got a couple of slightly startling pops and that is the main reason why I'm warmly recommending it and giving it four out of five stars. The content and concept is so creative, fresh and timely and Moggach pulled it off so well that I know I'll be watching out for her books in the future. 

"Kiss me First" by Lottie Moggach released in July 2013 by Picador (Pan McMillian), 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, Better World Books or from an IndieBound store near you. This review originally appeared on my Times of Israel blog.

(Note: Lottie Moggach is the daughter of Deborah Moggach, author of "These Foolish Things," which became the movie The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.)

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