Sunburn: Laura Lippman

“If only you knew what it means to walk away from something, what it takes.”

Laura Lippman’s standalone novel, Sunburn begins in 1995 when two strangers, Adam and Polly, meet in a bar in Belleville, a small town in Delaware. Their meeting seems accidental and innocent enough, but is it? After dumping her husband and child and hitching a ride, Polly finds herself in this dead-end town, while Adam claims to be passing through. He is attracted to this prickly redhead, and she doesn’t seem to mind the attention. Adam, who claims he has a few months to kill before moving on, decides to stay in Belleville and begins working in the same bar as Polly.

And why is she here, sitting on a barstool, forty-five miles inland, in a town where strangers seldom stop on a Sunday evening? Belleville is the kind of place where people are supposed to pass through and soon they won’t even do that. 

As the plot unfolds, it’s apparent that Adam and Polly are lying about who they really are and about their intentions. …

And why is she here? Does her husband know where she is? Does the husband know anything? Why did she leave him? And her little girl, how does that work? Feral his client says of her. No capacity for genuine emotion. She’s out for herself, always.

“Whatever you do,” his client says, “don’t turn your back on her.” Then he chuckles in an odd way. “Even face-to-face, you might not be safe with that one.”

Although the two central characters are introduced immediately, and we know their innermost thoughts, the controlled narrative keeps us at a distance, parceling out slivers of information at a time. Just as we come to know the real reason for Adam’s interest in Polly, we also begin to understand exactly what Polly is running from.


And yet, even though we discover elements to Polly’s past that might create some sympathy… there’s a lot about Polly that sends shivers down the spine. She’s cold, hard, and calculating and uses men to get what she wants.

The goal is never a man. Never. Men are the stones she jumps to, one after another, toward the goal.

There’s a murder in Polly’s past and very possibly another looming in her future. In creating Polly who is clearly fashioned as a noir femme fatale (think Phyllis Dietrichson), Lippman takes chances, and yet she succeeds admirably in her noir archetype creations. Polly is not a woman who’s easy to warm to–although Adam certainly charges in–despite many warnings. With Polly as the reptilian, intriguing femme fatale, that leaves Adam as the gullible male, well one of them, at least.

You have to be willing to leave some doors closed, to focus on the task at hand. Some people are like rabbit holes and you can fall a long, long way down if you go too far.

Lippman has written a range of crime fiction, and Sunburn is a far darker read than the Tess Monaghan novels.

Review copy



Filed under Fiction, Lippman Laura

Help I Am Being Held Prisoner: Donald Westlake (1974)

‘That’s Künt with an umlaut’ explains Harold Künt, the main character of Donald Westlake’s lively, entertaining novel Help I Am Being Held Prisoner, but no matter how many times Harold protests the pronunciation of his name, he’s doomed to be called … well you can figure it out.

Having his last name mispronounced is just one of Harold’s problems. A bigger problem is that he’s serving time in prison for a practical joke that went wrong (you have to read the book to find out what he did).  Harold’s intentions may have been humour, but it’s no joke when he find himself locked up in prison and warned to avoid the showers when the Joyboys are there.

But wait … when Harold finds himself working in prison alongside the Joyboys, they seem like decent fellows and they befriend him. They can’t be that bad, can they?

Think of the idea of An Innocent Abroad, well Harold Künt is An Innocent Inside. Yes he is guilty of a thoughtless prank, but he isn’t a criminal as such. Thrown in with hardened criminals, Harold very quickly gets in too deep, but since his life depends on going along with the programme, he must survive by his wits. After all, ‘Snitches get stitches.’

Help I am being held prisoner

If you like the humorous novels of Donald Westlake, then you will enjoy Help I am Being Held Prisoner from Hard Case Crime. Harold is an entertaining, likable narrator, and it’s fun to go along for the ride in this well-paced blend of crime and humour.

“I think it’s beautiful,” I said.

“You want in?”

Later I would have more than one occasion to give that question deep thought, but at the moment it was asked I considered none of the implications; such as, for instance, the criminal nature both of the act and of my new companions. I was outside the wall, it was as simple as that. “I want in,” I said.

“There’s maybe more to it than you know right now,” he said. “I got to tell you that.”

The tiniest of warning lights went on at the end of some cul-de-sac of my head, but I was looking the other way. “I don’t care,” I said. “Besides, what’s the alternative?”

This is the first of 4 rediscovered novels from Donald Westlake scheduled to be published by Hard Case Crime

Review copy


Filed under Fiction, Westlake, Donald

Black Sugar: Miguel Bonnefoy

“If the stars were made of gold, I’d dig up the sky.”

Black Sugar is a short novel which examines three generations of women and the tainting force of the legend of a pirate’s lost treasure. The novel begins with a chapter which describes the shipwreck of pirate Henry Morgan’s ship.  The men are in a miserable state, ill, and starving; animals that fall into their hands don’t fare well. This seems to be a cursed voyage, and of course, it all ends badly.

The novel then moves forward 300 years to a village and the Otero family. They own a farm which isn’t exactly profitable, but it came cheap with the proviso that a small room on the ground floor remain untouched. Every year, the elderly former owner comes to the room carrying an empty bucket. She stays inside the locked room all day and “would fill her bucket with tears.”

black sugar

The Oteros have one child: a daughter named Serena. Her life is dull and so perhaps it’s not surprising that she connects to the outside world through a wireless. She begins to imagine that some handsome stranger will arrive and rescue her from her boredom, but the only man to arrive is Severo Bracamonte. He’s there on a hunt for Captain Morgan’s treasure.

Over time, dreams are smashed only to be replaced by work, but when Serena and her husband, who begin making rum, adopt an orphan, life at the Otero farm starts to change.

Black Sugar begins with legend and dives into magical realism with the result that the story takes on a fable-like quality. Three generations of a Venezuelan family, are consumed, in various ways with the legend of Henry Morgan’s treasure. It’s clear that although the characters all have various relationships with the legend (seekers, hoarders) no-one escapes unscathed.  As the beginning of the book indicates, treasure brings madness, and the fate of the Otero family is tied to the legend.

With its fable-like qualities, this is a seemingly simple story, but it’s entwined with violence, greed and various other dark human emotions. Ultimately, we see people whose lives are shaped by the legend of Henry Morgan’s treasure, and it’s a negative shaping force–a curse on those who seek it.

For animal lovers, there’s a very unpleasant scene involving a brutal chicken slaughter.

Translated by Emily Boyce

review copy.



Filed under Bonnefoy Miguel, Fiction

Straying: Molly McCloskey

After I finished Molly McCloskey’s eloquent, thought-provoking novel Straying, I thought about the title. What is the definition of ‘straying?’ The word evokes the idea that someone … or some thing … wanders off the path. Not intentionally. No never intentionally–but an aimless, purposeless wandering off. And that brings me to the book’s plot:  Straying  is the story of a young American ex-pat who travels to Ireland, gets a job, and marries. Alice, a journalist in a stalled career, has no particular plans when she arrives in Ireland “at the tail end of the 80s.” She makes connections and drifts into a job in Sligo as a barmaid. Here she meets Eddie, a quiet, older man, who imports furniture. While Eddie seems perfect husband material, Alice feels a tug of resistance.

And then, one night, I had what felt like a conversion experience. I allowed myself to accept, with what seemed my whole heart, a future with Eddie. It wasn’t a decision (even allowed isn’t the right word), and that was why it felt like something I could trust.

All the right boxes are checked, and so they marry. Eddie buys them a lovely home, and is kind and thoughtful to his younger wife. Why then does the marriage go wrong?


In the novel, Alice is now a middle-aged woman who’s spent nomadic years working for non profits abroad. She returns to Ireland after wandering the world being exposed to some of the planet’s greatest miseries, and she finds herself alone with the memories of her brief marriage and an affair. Alice reminisces about Eddie and their marriage, still trying to unravel the motives for her actions decades later, yet even deeper than these troubling memories which are entwined with thoughts about her decisions, Alice deeply mourns her mother. By far the strongest connection in the book exists between Alice and her mother–even in death.

Now that Alice’s life is far removed from the notion of home and children, she finds herself thinking more about her mother and some of the conversations they had, especially those that took place towards the end of her mother’s life when “she often sounded distracted, as though she had caught sight of something approaching in the distance, something she couldn’t quite make out.” People who reach middle age (or late middle age) are fortunate indeed if their parents are still alive, for it’s only with age that we can possibly begin to understand our parents.

Straying is essentially the story of an affair, yet it’s also a story of loss,

Beyond the end of the lawn, the upper half of the Protestant church, which dominates the Crescent, looms like a giant risen from slumber, and when the night is cold and wet and moonlight falls on the yew tree and its needles glint like tinsel, the spectacle of it all is more than satisfying–for though I lament that narrowing of world that comes with age, I know that, like all children, I overlooked much and took everything for granted, and that even into the early years of adulthood, when I thought about the world at all in that way, I mistakenly assumed that all of its good, beautiful things would come around again, and then again, and again, until the time was right for me to pluck them. Now I am old enough to know that there are people I would like to see again whom I have already seen for the last time, there are places I dream of returning to that I will never revisit, and that though a few things do come around again and offer themselves, many more do not. 

After finishing this wonderful book, I found myself puzzling over Alice’s behaviour. How did she drift into marriage? How did she drift into this affair? She certainly never intended to hurt anyone, yet that was the ultimate result.

The title has a double meaning: Alice’s affair but also the aimlessness of her early life and marriage. Yet was she really aimless? Bad things happen in life. Take disease for example. We don’t choose disease, but sometimes it happens anyway, in spite of our plans or our tactics of avoidance. But can we say the same thing about marriage and/or infidelity? Do they just happen or are they murky attempts to establish or demolish something we don’t even recognize that we are seeking?

I’m a big believer in the idea that most of the time, people have a way of getting what they want. I’m not talking about money or health; I’m talking about the subtle manipulation of circumstance: I didn’t mean to let the dog off leash; I didn’t mean to have an affair. 

If you like books that delve into the murky waters of motivation, then you should enjoy Straying. While Alice chews over the choices she made, because yes they were choices even though she didn’t see things that way, this leaves room for the reader to speculate about the deep motivations for the decisions she made. Alice is a sensitive, thoughtful narrator who is still chewing over her actions decades later, and perhaps because she doesn’t make excuses, I liked her even more.

I’ll be reading this author again. This is a wonderful, wonderful book.

I recall a single midnight downpour, parked in Eddie’s car above the beach at Rosses Point, the world through the windscreen a rich black smear, as though painted in oils. 

(Alternate title: When Light is Like Water)

review copy


Filed under Fiction, McCloskey Molly

Magnetism: F. Scott Fitzgerald

“People over forty can seldom be convinced of anything. At eighteen our convictions are hills from which we look; at forty-five they are caves in which we hide.”

Magnetism is one of the titles from Penguin’s Great Loves series. I have a few titles from this series that I’ve collected over the years, and now I’m curious to see how some of the other selections match up. I’d hardly call any of the four short stories in Magnetism ‘great love,’ but perhaps that’s just me.

So here’s the breakdown:

The Sensible Thing

The Bridal Party


Bernice Bobs Her Hair.

The Sensible Thing, which competes with Bernice Bobs Her Hair as my favourite story in the collection, is the tale of a young man named George O’Kelly who, even though he’s a trained engineer, has a measly job as an insurance agent earning forty dollars a week. George is living and working in New York when he receives a letter from the girl he loves, Jonquil, who lives in Tennessee. The letter makes George nervous enough to leave his job and travel back to Tennessee. He senses that he’s losing Jonquil. He wants to marry her, but she says it’s not “sensible.” They part and meet a year later when George has become successful….

In The Bridal Party, Michael, a young man is in Paris trying to forget the woman he loves when he learns that she’s in Paris about to be married to another man.

Magnetism is the story of a handsome actor, George Hannaford, who is married to Kay. Women tend to throw themselves at George and for the most part, he’s oblivious to the attention. Trouble comes to George from two directions: he’s attracted to a young actress he works with, and a woman he knows resorts to blackmail.

Bernice Bobs Her Hair isn’t about love at all: it’s about how women undermine each other, and how women compete in underhand ways for men. Bernice, who is from Wisconsin, visits her worldly, attractive, popular cousin Marjorie. Socially, Bernice is a hopeless failure, and initially Marjorie undertakes to improve Bernice’s social life, but the plan works a little too well.

The content of the stories is typical F. Scott Fitzgerald fare, and if you’re not ready to tackle one of this author’s novels yet, or conversely, if you’ve read the novels, you may like these short stories. In The Bridal Party and The Sensible Thing, Fitzgerald cynically assesses how money influences love. While George O’Kelly and Michael are sincere young men, they have the misfortune to fall in love with women who value money above character. The gay young things of Bernice Bobs Her Hair date the story a bit but the central idea: women with their knives out for the competition is still relevant today.

TBR stack


Filed under Fiction, Fitzgerald, F. Scott

At the Hairdresser’s: Anita Brookner

“Deranged personalities should be avoided, in art as well as in life.”

Last year, I went on an Anita Brookner binge, but I managed to pull myself up before I read everything she’d ever written. I wanted to save some books for later. And that brings me to Brookner’s short story: At the Hairdresser’s.

The story is told by a very typical Brookner character: the widowed Elizabeth Warner, who lives in a London flat, and who is enduring old age alone. There are trips to the hairdresser and trips shopping. It’s a safe, quiet life, but all that changes when she’s introduced to a young man who runs his own taxi service.

It took me a few pages to warm up to this character–she’s clinical, yet elegant when describing her life which has been weighed, sorted and found to be … well by us, at least, fairly sterile.

I am not lonely except in company. I accept the odd invitation but it does not go well with me. I am easily overwhelmed by insistent conversation and usually leave with a sigh of relief. At such times the night seems beautiful to me and I wish that I had the strength to walk as I used to, through the empty streets, appreciating those lighted windows which hold such promise. 

At the beginning of the story, Elizabeth discusses friends in her past–women she no longer has contact with, and now the big event in her life is the bi-weekly trip to the hairdresser. One day when it’s raining, the hairdresser arranges a “car service” run by a young man named Chris. Chris is attentive to Elizabeth, but there are warning signs. Soon Chris is driving Elizabeth around regularly. Does she see the warning signs? Does she choose to ignore them?

This is a rewarding, ultimately optimistic,  short story for Brookner fans. This is not the first time Brookner addressed the theme that bad relationships or experiences can be freeing. I’m thinking of A Private View: the story of a retired man who becomes involved with the nomadic, Katy, who would like to use George…. well for all sorts of things.

In At the Hairdresser’s, Brookner argues that it’s never too late to learn, not too late to change, and that even unpleasant experiences can have some sort of pay off.

TBR stack.


Filed under Brookner Anita, Fiction

Berlin 1936: Sixteen Days in August by Oliver Hilmes

“After the Olympics, we’ll get ruthless,” Goebbels confides in his diary on 7 August.” Then there will be some shooting.”

Berlin 1936: Sixteeen Days in August from Oliver Hilmes offers a kaleidoscope view of the Olympic games through the stories of a range of people: Nazi leaders, diplomats, socialites, writers, journalists, spies, nightclub owners, and, of course, the athletes. All this is set against the city of Berlin: a city in flux with the glories and decadence of Weimar culture fading fast–although some people were slower than others to catch on to the new reality and the horrific future.

The book, which contains some marvelous photographs from the period, begins on August 1, 1936 with the president of the International Olympic committee, Henri de Baillet-Latour, who according to Goebbels’ diary entry is one of “the Olympians [who] look like the directors of a flea circus.” This comment sets the tone for the book: appearance vs reality. For while the Olympics are solemnly held with respect for tradition, to Hitler, the games were a wonderful opportunity for propaganda. Already, on page 16 when the games open, Hitler is presented with a “symbolic Olive branch” which is followed by the athletes, who “represented by the German weightlifter, Rudolf Ismayr–take the Olympic oath.” Then in a break from protocol “after taking the vow, he waves  a Swastika flag instead of the Olympic one.”

Parties and receptions: the Olympics are swathed with glittering events. As journalist Bella Fromm notes, “The propaganda machinery is trying to give visitors a positive impression of the Third Reich using the Olympics as camouflage.”

But behind the scenes of the Olympics, interesting events are taking place. Interior Minister, Wilhem Frick ordered a “gypsy manhunt day,” and two weeks before the Olympic games opened, around 600 people are rounded up and dumped in a camp on the outskirts of Berlin. The publication of the Nazi hate-rag Der Stürmer is suspended while all these important foreign visitors are in town.

There’s a ‘while Rome burns’ feel to the book. Berlin’s famous nightclubs are still operating, but “the Quartier Latin is a volcano, and patrons dance on its edge.” Similarly, The Ciro Bar and The Sherbini bar are thriving, but time is running out…

Underneath the idea that life in Berlin is ‘normal’ we see glimpses of the seemingly innocuous ‘Travel Union Club’ otherwise known as Legion Condor, well armed, heading to Spain. And then there’s the “free German press in exile” who publish and smuggle into Germany a 16 page pamphlet.

“Get to Know Beautiful Germany: An Indispensable Guide For Every Visitor to the Olympic Games in Berlin.” The cover featured an idyllic German landscape, but inside a map pinpoints almost all of the then-existing concentration camps, penal facilities and court prisons. ‘SA torture chambers have not been included,” a footnote read. “They are too many in number.”

In Berlin, American Author Thomas Wolfe who “doesn’t like Jews” mouths off about how “people are free to speak and write and think some things in Germany that they are not free to speak and write in America. For example, in Germany you are free to speak and write that you do not like Jews and that you think Jews are bad, corrupt and unpleasant people. In America, you are not free to say this.” But Wolfe expresses this naive opinion to the wrong person: Mildred Harnack, and it’s from her that for the first time, Wolfe hears the term, “concentration camp.

Since arriving in Berlin, Wolfe has never seen any public evidence of the tyranny she described. But what if Germany is putting on a show to fool him and the other Olympic visitors? What if the Games are just a gigantic piece of propaganda? And what if the Germans Wolfe meets every day are just extras in an exceedingly horrible play?

Berlin 1936 is initially a dizzying read, but then the central idea of appearance vs reality takes over. The author’s original approach to a slice of history is compelling and effective. Each chapter is prefaced with the report of the weather (there’s great irony here) and police reports are scattered through the text. At the end of the book, there’s a section ‘what became of.’ and in this chapter, the author traces the lives of some of the characters mentioned.

Review copy

Translated by Jefferson Chase


Filed under Hilmes Oliver, Non Fiction

Children of Nazis: The Sons and Daughters of Himmler, Göring, Höss, Mengele and Others. Living with a Father’s Legacy: Tania Crasnianski

A few years ago I watched Hitler’s Children, a documentary which explored the lives of some of the offspring of the Nazi elite. It was a fascinating film, and so when I saw Tania Crasnianski’s Children of Nazis, I knew I wanted to read it.

Under scrutiny here are:

Gudren Himmler

Edda Göring

Wolf R. Hess

Niklas Frank

Martin Adolf Bormann Jr.

The Höss children

The Speer Children

Rolf Mengele

One of the many things I carried away from Hitler’s Children was the range of reactions experienced by the younger relatives of the Nazi elite. Some were in total denial, while others were horrified when they finally learned the truth, and the same is true in the book. Children of Nazis presents each chapter with a brief history of exactly what each father did, followed by a description of the child’s upbringing, what happened after the war, and the child’s opinion of the father’s actions. These children had very different upbringings: Gudren Himmler had a secluded, claustrophobia “provincial bourgeois” upbringing while Edda Göring was treated like a Nazi princess, growing up in a castle with an actress mother and a flamboyant father who wore full make up and was addicted to morphine. Some of the children had excellent loving, relationships with their fathers, while others did not. Some of the children saw Jews from the concentration camps, while others were removed from that aspect of the war. Some children had happy home lives while others did not. Is it more difficult for a child of a leading Nazi to accept the father’s guilt if the child were removed from all signs of the war? If a Nazi father is a cold, remote man, is it easier to accept his responsibility in the genocide? How could the children brought up at Auschwitz deny their father’s responsibility?

Children of Nazis

But there are commonalities in these childhoods. After the war, many of the mothers were arrested and the children were isolated from broader society. As social pariahs, they were barred from schools, housing, and employment. And since, post 1945,  the mothers of the children remained faithful to the ideals of the Third Reich, this often threw the children exclusively into Nazi circles. There are also stories here of kindness shown to the children and this seemed to pay off in a big way. Pastor Lohmann, for example, “who made it his mission to open his doors to the children of the Nazi party, showing them it was possible for people who were not like them to love them.” Or the Jewish owners of Saks Jandel who kept Brigitte Höss’s secret that her father was the commandant of Auschwitz.

All these case studies cause the reader to question how we would have reacted in such cases. If these men were “good” fathers, and by that I mean kind and attentive to their children, how would a child put their father’s monstrous behavior out-of-the-house into any sort of context?

“There must have been two sides to him. The one that I knew and then another…. She also questioned the official number of Jews sent to their deaths: “How can there be so many survivors if so many had been killed.” (Birgitte Höss)

I particularly liked the chapters on Niklas Frank, the son of “the Butcher of Poland,” and Martin Adolf Bormann Jr. The chapter on Frank details how, as a child, he would go with his mother to the Warsaw ghetto. They arrived in a chauffeur driven limousine and Frank recalls as how as a young child, he noted corpses on the pavement, thin children dressed in rags staring at the car. Frank says his mother used the ghettos “as if they were discount stores especially designed for the Frank family.”

Martin Adolf Bormann Jr was sent, as a punishment, to a Nazi Party academy at age 10 and when the death of Hitler was announced, the news stunned the students:

For me, that was the end. I remember the moment vividly, but I cannot describe the silence that greeted the news … it must have lasted four hours. No one said a word, but eventually people began to go outside, and almost immediately, there was a gunshot, then another, and another. Inside, no one spoke, there was no sound, only the gunshots outside. We thought we were all going to die…. I saw no future for myself. Suddenly, behind the bodies that covered the courtyard, another boy, who was eighteen, appeared. He invited me to come sit next to him. The air smelled fresh, birds were singing, we were still alive. I know that, if we hadn’t been there for each other in that precise moment, neither of us would still be here. I know it. 

The author mentioned that while she intended to meet all of her subjects, “in the end,” she only interviewed one, Niklas Frank. Many of the subjects were dead, while others did not wish to be interviewed for a range of reasons. The author says something that really stuck “It is also true that some of these sons and daughters feel it is easier to be the ‘child of’ certain of these men rather than others.”

And this brings me to Dr Mengele. I can’t rate the Nazis listed in the book from 1-10 from best to worst. That’s not a job I want, but I can say that there’s something particularly repugnant about Mengele. The chapter on Mengele details the meeting between The Angel of Death and his son.

Children Of Nazis is a sobering read. These children were raised in the cult of the Third Reich, and were indoctrinated in those Aryan philosophies. Some managed to break free, but some did not.

Review copy

translated by Molly Grogan


Filed under Crasnianski Tania, Non Fiction

Asymmetry: Lisa Halliday

Asymmetry from Lisa Halliday unfolds through three seemingly disparate sections, yet there’s an underlying theme of inequality that weaves these three sections together. I rarely comment about covers, but this clever design shows creativity and offers a visual hint of the book’s content.


The first section concerns a relationship between Alice, a young book editor who lives in New York and the much older, successful writer Ezra Blazer. The book’s blurb says it’s an account of a “tender and exquisite account of an unexpected romance.” Hardly. This is an account of a writer successful enough in the literary world to win the Pulitzer prize who begins a sexual relationship with a young woman. Most of their relationship takes place at his apartment (with the occasional dinner at a restaurant and a trip out to his Long Island home), and while the relationship seems at least initially to be almost totally sexual, gradually it erodes into selfish, aging male and young nursemaid/errand girl who satisfies every whim.

Of course an older male can pat himself on the back that he is offering a young woman exposure to opportunities or education that a young, male rival cannot, and so we see that here. Ezra assumes the role of professor Higgins to Alice’s Eliza, and it’s just as cringeworthy as the film when Ezra slips Alice money and tells her how to get her hair cut if she should ever decided to cut it short.

There’s almost a trance-like quality in Ezra’s relationship to Alice (Alice down the rabbit hole). Why doesn’t she tell him to shove it when, for example, they are watching a baseball game, and he sends her out at night for ice-cream?

“Darling, in the cooler in the back of the deli here on the corner they have Häagen-Dazs bar. Do you want one?”


“Sure. You’ll be right back. But listen. I want vanilla on the inside, chocolate on the outside, nuts. If they don’t have that I want chocolate on the inside, chocolate on the outside, no nuts. And if they don’t have that I want vanilla on the inside, chocolate on the outside, no nuts. Plus whatever you want darling. My wallet’s right on the table there. Go.”

The second section takes place at Heathrow as an Iraqi-American tries to spend two days in London before flying onto Iraq to see his brother. While in the previous section, inequalities of power, age, wealth and experience exist in the relationship between Alice and Ezra,  Amar, who is politically disadvantaged, is held hostage to bureaucratic red tape. As Amar waits patiently, his story gradually unfolds and we see a man, who through no fault of his own, has been a hostage to history and war.

The third section is Ezra on the Desert island Discs. I disliked Ezra in the novel’s first section, and in this final part, his character is fully revealed in its egotistical, exploitative glory as he talks about his disc choices.

I enjoyed the two main sections of Asymmetry very much indeed, and the novel’s underlying themes about inequalities are lucidly argued on both the personal and political level. My main complaint is the filler used in the first section: large sections of book excerpts (recommended to Alice by Ezra) break up the story and then there’s an entire section taken from a pamphlet explaining abortion. This is not a moral complaint, but just a reader complaint. Filler such as this seems … well just like filler. Apart from that complaint (which IMO unfortunately weakened the book) the two different stories with their vastly different characters were intense and excellent

Review copy.


Filed under Fiction, Halliday Lisa

The Good House: Ann Leary

“I get so paranoid when I drink; that’s what AA and rehab will do for you.”

The funny, tart voice of a stubborn, alcoholic woman (in denial) as she careens though her life makes The Good House the most entertaining, funny and surprising book I’ve read in a long time.

Divorced 60-year-old real estate agent Hildy Good is one of Wendover’s most successful businesswomen. Wendover, located on Boston’s North shore, is a strange blend of legacy residents (Hildy can trace her family back to the Salem witch trials) and new money incomers who are looking for a better quality life for their children. Hildy capitalizes on local news (and gossip) to land listings and sales. So what if she drinks too much. That’s her business isn’t it? And her life was going great, wasn’t it, until her two adult daughters arranged an intervention, and Hildy went off to rehab.

The Good House

When we meet Hildy, she’s out of rehab, back at work, but listings and sales are dropping. A former employee, “with all sorts of liposuctioning and flesh tucking,” is her biggest competitor and Hildy’s stint in rehab may have allowed the competitor an edge that Hildy is now desperately chasing. With a mortgage she can’t really afford, and still paying for therapy (and more) for her two daughters, Hildy is squeezed to the max.

Hildy, our unreliable narrator, is in control of what we see, but even so through the denial, the cracks show. At rehab, she didn’t think she belonged, but she completed the programme in order to get her daughters off her back and so that she could see her grandson.

How could anyone, besides my ridiculous, ungrateful spoiled daughters, imagine that I had a problem with alcohol?

She used to drink with a friend, but now that she is supposedly dry, she drinks alone on the sly. She has ‘rules’ about drinking, and she keeps a secret stash in the cellar where no one will find it. She likes herself more when she’s drunk, and thinks alcohol enables her success. Over the course of the novel, her relationship with alcohol becomes more and more problematic. Whether she’s driving drunk, experiencing blackouts, or sneaking vodka at family holidays, Hildy’s life is out-of-control.

While the novel is ostensibly about Hildy’s alcoholism, other characters in Hildy’s life drag her into various problems. Rebecca, a beautiful, troubled, wealthy newcomer becomes friends with Hildy–drinking friends, and so we see how alcohol impairs Hildy’s judgement and how it impacts her emotional responses. Then there’s Hildy’s long-cold romance with Frank Getchell, a local bachelor with desirable legacy property, who makes a rather lucrative living collecting trash and doing various construction jobs. At yet another remove, we see how Hildy functions in a community where everyone knows everyone’s secrets, and the locals who used to own the big properties are now lucky if they can get a job working for the new owners.

Hildy is always an entertaining narrator whether she’s complaining about a fellow dinner guest using any excuse to talk about her “annoying writing,” or bitching about a rival grandmother:

Honestly, if she hadn’t had my grandchild in her arms, I would have clocked her on the head. Could she have been more obnoxious about Grady? I’ve never liked Nancy Watson. She’s a nitwit. When not watching Grady, she’s busy “scrapbooking,” which is her hobby, and Tess is always showing me the sickly-sweet scrapbooks featuring Grady that Nancy puts together, seemingly every week. I always smile as Tess flips the pages for me, and I say things like “Imagine having all that time to devote to something like this.”

The Good House is consistently funny from the first page until the end. Hildy always surprised me with just how far she was prepared to go. She’s dug down so deep in denial that there were numerous occasions when I was deceived, and either laughed out loud at the consequences or shock my head in concern. Unreliable narrator, psychiatry and real estate are all buttons for me.

I was sorry to finish this novel, and sorry to say goodbye to Hildy–a woman who’s extremely capable, someone who has an uncanny knack at ‘reading’ people but who is blind to herself. At one point she brags to local psychiatrist:

I can walk through a house once and know more about its occupants than a psychiatrist could after a year of sessions.

According to Hildy:

I like a house that looks lived in. General wear and tear is a healthy sign; a house that’s too antiseptic speaks as much to me of domestic discord as a house in complete disarray. Alcoholics, hoarders, binge eaters, addicts, sexual deviants, philanderers, depressives–you name it, I can see it all in the worn edges of their nests. You catch the smoky reek of stale scotch and cigarettes despite the desperate abundance of vanilla-scented candles. The animal stench up between the floorboards, even though the cat lady and her minions were removed months before, the marital bedroom that’s become his, the cluttered guest room that’s more clearly hers--well you get the idea. 

Finally, beyond the entertainment factor there’s real quality here. Hildy’s youth is seen in shimmering, poignant flashbacks, and it’s really really well done.

TBR list

(There’s a film of this book in production. I would have preferred to have seen a miniseries–thinking Big Little Lies)


Filed under Fiction, Leary Ann, Uncategorized