Thereby Hangs a Tail by Spencer Quinn

Thereby Hangs a Tail (A Chet and Bernie Mystery #2)Thereby Hangs a Tail by Spencer Quinn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m so glad I discovered this super-sweet and also funny series featuring PI team Chet (a dog, and our narrator) and Bernie (his human).
The Chet and Bernie mysteries remind me in some ways of Bunnicula for adults (with the caveat that I consider Bunnicula appropriate and perhaps necessary reading fare for EVERYONE, adults included!).
What primarily makes this an “adult” book is that as Chet and Bernie solve crimes, Chet is witness to events, often not fully understood, that the reader realizes have serious implications, either regarding life and death, relationships, or even contemporary environmental issues.
Although at first glance, the story seems so funny as to be almost “fluff” reading, Spencer Quinn (a pseudonym for a well-known crime writer) actually writes with the talent of capturing deep feelings and wisdom, with a few simple, carefully chosen words.
Since the story is told from a dog’s perspective, we’ve got a narrator who is totally loveable, and also totally grounded in the things that matter in life. I loved this aspect of Thereby Hangs a Tail.
Chet’s perspective, in which the concept of worrying doesn’t make sense, in which life is full of joy and wonder, and in which his human is loved totally and unconditionally, are qualities which I value, and want to remember more in my daily life.
Thereby Hangs a Tail is a fast read, with a lot of humor, a great sense of place (the American Southwest), and two characters who will leap right off the page and into your heart. A great book to brighten your day.

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In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson

In a Sunburned CountryIn a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Still one of my all-time favorite books, period.
I first read In a Sunburned Country ten years ago, and loved it (and folded over page corners like folding was a new skill that was going out of style).
On rereading, which was actually a listen to the audio version read by the author, I still found this love-story to a country to be very, very funny, as well as enchanting, thought-provoking, melancholy, and wise.
What I love about Bryson’s voice is how he’s able to make you laugh really hard-truly-this book should come with a warning label for those who dare to read it in public: “This book WILL cause sudden and unexpected outbursts of laughter which may appear especially unusual if you are in the middle of jogging on a treadmill with a serious expression on your face.”
But also, underneath the humor, Bryson speaks with wonder and curiosity about the world around him. He notices the gigantic lobster sculpture, as well as the Sydney Opera House, he notes the absurdity that frequently accompanies our adventures, historical, and present.
Bryson seems, at heart, to deeply like the world around him, and the people in it. I highly recommend In a Sunburned Country to anyone interested in Australia, travel, or learning something new. Perhaps even more importantly, I’d rank this in my top ten list of books to read when you’re feeling sad. It will brighten your day.

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A is for Angelica by Iain Broome

A is for AngelicaA is for Angelica by Iain Broome

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Wow. First of all, I’d like to thank the publisher through NetGalley for my copy of A is for Angelica by Iain Broome.
This is a really difficult novel for me to rate, or write about, in several ways. To start with, the basic premise (without spoilers) is that our narrator, Gordon Kingdom, is a man who keeps files on all his neighbors, as he watches them through the window in his spare bedroom. His wife Georgiana has recently had a stroke, and Gordon has taken the doctor’s suggestion to “write things down” very literally.
The characters that figure prominently in Gordon’s life include Angelica, the 42-year-old woman who moves into the house across the street from him, Benny, the teenaged artist who Gordon observes painting at one in the morning, and Don Donaldson, Gordon’s oldest friend. Gordon also has a dog named Kipling, who he attempts to care for, and interacts with various quirky other people who he encounters in his daily life.
The story starts with a prologue chapter describing a conversation between Gordon and Angelica which is confusing to the reader, since we have no background on their relationship. Then, the novel takes us back in time to when the two first meet, and follows them over the ensuing months, ending with a recap of the prologue, which the reader now views with more understanding.
The novel is written in simple language, but that does not mean that it is a simple story. From the beginning, Gordon’s narrative voice is distinctive, and I was unsure if he was supposed to be portrayed as autistic. What exactly is going on with Gordon is never clarified, which I found frustrating.
However, Gordon’s narration is frequently laugh-out-loud funny, and this is accomplished because author Iain Broome has a true talent at writing humor. The flip side of this is that Gordon’s situation, and the understated way in which he describes tragic events, make the deep sadness in this story all the more powerful.
Gordon doesn’t tell us that he is sad, even as he deals with several life-altering tragedies in the course of the novel. Instead, he tries to deal with sickness and loss in his world through controlling it in ways he can, through documenting the daily routines of his neighbors, and through researching how to help someone recover from a stroke and writing his own manual about his wife’s progress. The great tragedy is that, as Gordon tries so hard to organize minutia, his world is collapsing around him, and there is absolutely nothing he can do to stop it.
As other reviewers have noted, the humor in A is for Angelica almost makes the reader feel guilty, because it comes in tandem with devastating losses. So while in many ways this novel is brilliant, at the same time, it is not an easy read. It made me feel uncomfortable, but more than that it was consistently, increasingly, terribly sad.
Because of the author’s obvious talent, I had expected there to be some sort of resolution or understanding at the end of the novel, and for me, there was not. As I read the final chapter, the recap of the prologue, I felt that the dialogue was supposed to have some deep significance, but that I must be missing it. And I am honestly not sure whether Iain Broome meant for there to be some sort of message that I missed, or whether the message was that there is no resolution. Perhaps A is for Angelica was a sad story, pure and simple.
This is where, for me, it becomes difficult to rate the book. While I admire Broome’s talent as a writer, as a reader find myself deeply affected by the tone of a novel. Reading A is for Angelica made me feel depressed, and even angry, for the days in which I was in that world. And without some sort of point, even if that point was that we cannot control our world, I felt a bit emotionally used. A is for Angelica seemed to be a narrative of the downfall of a man’s life, but I was left wondering why the narrative had been told. Reading it felt like absorbing a dose of sadness, and for me, if that sadness does not bring with it any new understanding about the world, it is not worth adding to a world that already has enough suffering in it.
In conclusion, A is for Angelica is a well-written work of art. However, if you are feeling down, or if you are the kind of person whose mood is deeply affected by the books you read, I would not recommend reading this book. Or if you do read A is for Angelica, make sure to have something silly or uplifting handy for when you finish.

The Happy Housewife by Heleen van Royen

The Happy Housewife

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Happy Housewife, by author Heleen van Royen, was one of my reading surprises of 2013. I stumbled on van Royen as an author whilst researching bestselling contemporary authors in the Netherlands, where I read that she was a radio reporter as well as writing for magazines, and is considered controversial for the explicit sexuality in her novels.
With this in mind, I picked up van Royen’s first and most well-known novel with the hope that I would get some sense of a contemporary Dutch bestseller, but not much expectation that it would be much more than a light read.
I was pleasantly wowed. The Happy Housewife, which is the firs- person account of the postpartum depression of a new mother named Lea, is in turns very funny, and surprisingly, sneakily, insightful and wise. From the first few chapters, I was impressed with the English translation by Liz Waters. The novel retained a sly, smart sense of humor, and a worldview that managed to be earthy without descending into pure cynicism. One of the most refreshing things about The Happy Housewife was that it managed to describe human physicality, from burps, to births, without losing a sense of tenderness and hope. I was very impressed with van Royen’s ability to describe what is often a tragic world, as well as portraying that world as genuinely funny and worth inhabiting. At multiple times while reading, I thought to myself, “this novel is brilliant!”
In a nutshell, the book follows Lea, an independent, beautiful, sex-obsessed, young woman, from her ambivalent pregnancy (her husband has decided that he wants a child), to the horrendous and unflinchingly detailed description of her giving birth, to her postpartum psychosis, and the counseling/delving into her past that she undertakes as a result. We follow Lea into madness, and until the end of the novel, are not sure whether she will emerge intact.
In The Happy Housewife, one gets the distinct impression that van Royen is sharing an awful lot of herself with the reader. The quotes at the beginning of each chapter are attributed to her own mother, one of the poems that Lea’s father writes in the story was written by the author’s father. These types of touches lend credence to the sense that in this novel, van Royen is perhaps laying bare some of her own feelings. The funny thing for me as a reader was that, despite that fact that Lea is unabashedly self-centered, and behaves in totally outrageous ways towards her husband, baby son, and psychiatrist, her incorrigible sense of humor and her honesty make her an incredibly sympathetic character. She’s a tremendous flirt, but she’s also tremendously lonely; she’s obsessed with sex, but she also has the vulnerability of a broken-hearted little girl.
In the end, I was truly impressed with Heleen van Royen’s debut novel. It was a fast read, that is also subtly, wonderfully, wise. I appreciated it in my mid-thirties more than I would have if I had read it when I was 20.
As a final note, The Happy Housewife was made into a film. I think it would be interesting to see how the author’s voice, which makes the novel so delightful, is translated to this medium. In the end, I highly recommend The Happy Housewife, and hope that it will be read by more people around the world.

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