28 December 2009

Matchless: A Christmas Story

By Gregory Maguire
Published by HarperCollins, 2009
Illustrated by Gregory Maguire

"An Illumination of Hans Christian Andersen's Classic The Little Match Girl"

I can't resist a book written by Gregory Maguire. So, even though this book is tiny - and seems to have just as many pictures as words - I had to have it. It is interesting to me how Maguire can take a classic fairy tale and retell it so that his version is the one you remember and prefer.

This retelling is not so much about a little match girl as it is about Frederik and his mother who live:

"On an island so far north that it snowed from September to April...".

Surprisingly, the island was not Newfoundland.

The match girl's story appears in Part Two and, according to Maguire's notes, doesn't stray too much from Andersen's original. Maguire does manage quite nicely to intertwine her story with Frederik's story.

Matchless is a tale of a dying child's hallucinations, a working mother's lack of time for her child, a child's wish for a better future, and a connection to the afterlife. This story was written for National Public Radio in the US and my only complaint would be that it wasn't written as a full-length novel.

11 December 2009

The Tavern on Maple Street

By Sharon Owens
Published by the Penguin Group
First published by Poolbeg Press, Ireland, February 2006

What separates Sharon Owens from the other Irish authors I also adore is the fact that she writes from the Belfast perspective; no posh Dublin life for her.

This story takes place in - you guessed it - a tavern on Maple Street. Jack and Lily, the extremely likeable owners of Beaumont's Tavern, are stunned when a developer from Dublin plans to buy and demolish the entire block and erect a shopping mall in its place. Realising the end is near, Lily decides to go out of business in a big way and, in an effort to bring new customers to Beaumont's, she hires extra staff and begins to host events in the tavern. The staff, of course, are all young, pretty girls who bring their own troubles into Lily's life.

Filled with realistic characters and situations, Owens takes you away to a cozy place where you root for the main characters, enjoy the pub regulars, and wish you could sit in the booth next to the fire with a drink and a good book.

Another lovely read from Sharon Owens.

08 December 2009

Remarkable Creatures

By Tracy Chevalier
Published by Penguin Group
First printing, January 2010

I'm quite often amazed by Tracy Chevalier. It's a talent (and, I'm sure, an awful lot of hard work) to write in as much detail as she does. But it's the details that make her books so glorious to read.

I have to admit, I wasn't out of my mind with glee when I learned Chevalier's new book was about Mary Anning (1799-1847), the British fossil hunter and paleontologist. I was interested, but prepared for boredom. But boredom never came.

Mary Anning and her older friend and fellow fossil hunter, Elizabeth Philpot, were treated with disdain throughout most of their lives. Mary for being poor; Elizabeth for being a spinster; and both for being women daring to seek out the truth behind the fossils. To be women interested in fossil hunting and reconstruction was considered odd. But to question God, the Bible, and men, and to introduce the concept of extinction in a Bible-driven world was radical. Scientists of the day never credited Mary Anning with the work she had done yet sought her out when looking for particular specimens. Recognition of a woman as anything other than a "spare part" was hard to come by in the nineteenth century.

Aside from the scientific aspect of this book, Chevalier has written a story of friendship between two women of different generations and different social classes with a common interest in fossil hunting. Like all friendships, theirs included mutual respect and admiration as well as envy and jealousy. I'm actually hard-pressed to say which of the two women I found more interesting. And I would venture to say they are actually the Remarkable Creatures, more so than the fossils uncovered in this book.

Another brilliant book by Tracy Chevalier. The only downside is that you have to wait until January to buy it.

02 December 2009

The Big Over Easy

By Jasper Fforde
Published by Hodder and Stoughton
First published in Great Britain in 2005

The Nursery Crime Division of the Reading Police Department doesn't have it easy. It has the lowest conviction/investigation ratio of any department:
"Sheep rustling from Miss Bo-Peep - two arrests, no charges. Failure to properly take care of livestock by 'Boy' Blue. One arrest, no charges. Cruelly putting a cat in a well. Johnny Flynn arrested, no charges brought. Kidnapping of Hansel and Gretel with intent to commit cannibalism. One arrest, no charges...".
You get the picture. And now Humperdinck Jehoshaphat Aloysius Stuyvesant van Dumpty has been murdered by a person or persons unknown as he sat upon a wall.

Can Detective Inspector Jack Spratt and Detective Sergeant Mary Mary solve the crime (particularly before DCI Friedland Chymes gets his hands on the case)?

The nursery characters make it fun, but only Jasper Fforde could take this bizarre cast of characters and write a crime novel. Throw in Rapunzel, Wee Willie Winkie, the Three Little Pigs, and Prometheus, and you've got one page-turner of a whodunnit going on.

Fans of Jasper Fforde will love this book. If you haven't read anything by him, this is an excellent novel to start your Fforde addiction.

01 December 2009

The Brightest Star in the Sky

By Marian Keyes
Published by the Penguin Group
First published 2009

Marian Keyes tackles some pretty big topics in her latest novel: rape, dementia, death. It's a long way from "Last Chance Saloon", the book that made me a Marian Keyes junkie. Perhaps it's because I am such a junkie that I'm so very critical of this new venture of hers.

The storylines respecting the above-mentioned topics are interesting - but only near the end of the book. It took ages to get into this book and there were far too many gimmicks employed to make the book enjoyable: the foreshadowing/commentary by the narrating star/lifeform was irritating; knowing what the dog was thinking was a very un-Marian-like attempt at humour; the obsession with ending words in "sk" was totally overused; and the novel was peopled with too many, well, people. Too much back-story about the characters only added to the annoyance of reading the first half of this book.

But I persevered, because Marian Keyes is a good writer, dammit, and I knew I would find her somewhere in there. And, near the end, there she was in all her writing glory. She was funny, she was serious, she was writing. No messing about, she stuck to the topics and dug right in putting some people together while tearing others apart and every page was turned with high anticipation of what would happen next.

This book doesn't come close to "This Charming Man", which has become my favourite Marian Keyes novel. Lola Daly was the best female character she has ever written - hilarious, acerbic, vulnerable. No such memorable characters exist in "The Brightest Star in the Sky" but there are some strong, interesting characters and, based on that alone, this book is probably worth your time.