Short Book Review: The Miniaturist by Jesse Burton

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The MiniaturistThe Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Dutch Golden Age of shipbuilding, import and export, and exotic explorations, was a dark time for some. A young bride arrives into the bustling City of Amsterdam, to live with her new wealthy Merchant husband, but doesn’t get what she expected! Bored and alone she is gifted something that leads to one mystery after another. Is her future being told by a witch or is someone provoking her?
It’s not a warm, romantic type of book despite similarities in plot with classics from The Brontes and Austen. It was slow to start but it didn’t take long to be enthralled, not only by each complicated character but by all the subplots and entangled mysteries. It is a wonderfully dark story and has an air of magic realism that drew me in. At times I felt it was a little ‘purple’ but somehow this lended itself to the story.
I can’t say the characters were credible in terms of real-life everyday people, but they were complicated, layered and mysterious. They all had a contradictory side and a rich history. For me, it worked. Maybe that’s because the story itself dealt with real-life situations we might come across in our modern World. All of the characters were isolated from their society for one reason or another: each had a dark history at some level and the story brings them all together in one house. My favourite character was Marin. First seen as a purist who eats cold herrings for breakfast and doesn’t indulge herself with unGodly things like sugar, we later see the real Marin, and the reader cannot help but both have sympathy and admiration for her and her lost potential.

For a first novel, I think it’s right up there. I look forward to reading more from Jesse Burton.

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Book Review: The Penguin Lessons by Tom Mitchell

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The Penguin LessonsThe Penguin Lessons by Tom Michell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Tom Mitchell recounts his true and bizarre meeting of an adorable Penguin while traveling in Central America in his twenties. He stumbled across the only one left alive on a shore of oil slicken Penguins in Uruguay and manages to bring him back to the flat where he is staying. There’s a strong bond from the start. Under the regime of Eva Perón with an imminent military coup, the penguin was smuggled through customs and into Argentina, back to the boarding school where Tom taught. Juan Salvador, the charming Penguin, manages to become the school mascot and everyone’s friend. He’s pampered and treasured by students and school staff alike.
The most enjoyable thing about this light hearted quirky tale is that it’s true. The formidable determination of Tom resulted in Juan Salvador living a very charmed life indeed! Here’s where the charm stops. There wasn’t enough story to go into such word count. It wasn’t a long story, and it wasn’t a profound story. I found myself flicking through three to four pages of a rugby match yawn-fest and then again with a scene where Tom and Juan meet the school’s housekeepers’s family. There were more than a few of these moments in the book. I think if they were shorter they could have been much funnier.
The book did include some interesting insight into the Argentinian society and political World of the seventies. The cover, the concept, and the cute little illustrations were as delightful as the tale itself but frankly, there were too many pages. Overall a light and entertaining story but I feel it lacked substance and had too many fillers.

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Supply & Demand

The car rolled up the gravel path. Wiping his hands in his leather apron, Dak sauntered over to the stove and put a pan of water on. He poured white spirits over his stained hands at the basin, and rubbed and old rag into the deep crevices.

‘Mornin Dak, a fine one it is too’

Dak nodded at him as he walked in to his usual spot at the back of the cave, out of the sun. He put a parcel and a letter on the desk and sat down.

‘There’s a few more orders for ya today. These things are gettin quite popular with folk, ya know’

Dak brought the tea to the table and sat down opposite to Jo. He didn’t look up as he poured the tea.

‘I’m running out of stock’

Jo tilted his head upward and took a deep breath in.

‘Well, ya know, supply and demand, and all that. There’s three more orders today, and that makes seven orders outstanding, isn’t it?’

Dak nodded.

‘I want you to know that I never kill any living creature to make these pieces. I respect the life that lived in every skull and every bone I find on this land’

Jo cleared his throat.

‘Oh sure, but- supply and demand Dak. There’s money to be made here and –

He snorted and omitted a jarring laugh that made Dak grimace. It faded once he realised he was the only one amused. He slurped his tea and put it down, looking sideways in thought before starting to talk again.

‘See, these rich folk don’t know what to be doing with their money Dak. It’s the new in- thing, if ya hear me. They want them on their mantles, they want to gift them to their friends on their birthdays, you know? They want them’

Dak stared passed Jo’s head at the wall behind him. He continued.

‘The mayor’s wife was looking for a nice big one. She’ll pay big bucks’

‘Big bucks: Big skull?’

‘Exactly’, Jo guffawed

’How big? As big as her husbands fat belly?’

‘Aw come on now Dak. I’m givin you an opportunity to make some money here! And you know, I earn a pittance with the National Post. Jenny’s wedding is coming up. It’s not easy to reach the level of affair she’s aspirin to’

Dak got up from the table and walked to his bench.

‘I’ll see what I can do. I’ll finish these two by tomorrow, and I’ll have a scout around today. It’s not the right season for roadkill or hawk prey, but I’ll look.

Jo stood up and wriggled his National Postal cap back on his fat head.

‘What about catching a few rabbits in a snare, Dak? Or even a deer for the mayor’s wife?’

Dak turned and walked towards Jo quickly. He stopped abruptly when their noses almost touched.

‘What did I just say?’

He walked back to his bench and stared at the wall until Jo walked out of the cave, past him and down the path to the van. That night Dak dreamed of the Stag. He had met him several times when running in the forest as a child. Each time, the stag had stopped in his tracks and stared into his eyes, penetrating him with an intense love that he’d never experienced again.

The following morning, he lay in bed and watched the sun slide further into the front of his cave before he jumped up and set to work. It didn’t take long as he’d seen his father do it time after time. As he raised the net and tested the ropes, he recalled the morning he had stood with the village looking up into the trees, watching the stag struggling hysterically in the net. A dart pierced his neck. Even once he had given up the stag kept his gaze until the life drained out of him.

Later, Dak stood at his bench and prepared his paints. A tiny skull of a bird sat in a delicate clamp in front of him. He heard the crackling stones under the tyres of the postal van. The van door shut loudly and Dak jumped. A few steps crunched on the gravel before he heard a howl.

‘Dak, what the fuck is this? Get me down right now you fucking weirdo’

Dak’s smile slowly widened.

‘Dak? Dak are you there? Oh come on!!!

A nice big skull.

He turned. There stood the Stag, staring into Dak’s eyes.

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Flour sacks to Petticoats

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The evening’s low sun beating through the box window blinded her. All she could see was the silhouette of a humped figure, stirring like a witch with a cauldron. She could hear the flour sack swishing around the tin basin. The puffing and wheezing sent Eibhlín forward to help. But she was pushed away gently by an arm swiping the air.

Go out and catch the rest of the sun. child. Put your tunic on ye first’.

She fluttered to the corner on her tippy toes and slipped into her canvas tunic. She ran to the door and stopped for a minute to rub her moaning belly.

Granny, do you need me to go to the shop today?’ she hinted, licking her lips.

It’s drippin’ and bread, Eibhlín’

Shoulders slumped, the nymph withdrew and the door closed softly behind her.

Outside, she stood with her back resting on the door for a while feeling the sun on her face. There was no one around. Annie was off with her mother at the fishery and Sean was in big school now so he wouldn’t be on the road until later. She sligged towards the abandoned barn by the stream at the end of the row of cottages, and peered into the gaping darkness to see if there was any mischief in the making. She’d been forbidden to get inside ‘the crock’ since Annie had caught her finger under the indicator switch and lost her nail. She hadn’t cared much for the attention Annie got for her injury. It had been the best hideaway they’d ever had, and she’d spoiled it.

If I see ye near that ould banger I’ll redden ye’

Granny had only reddened her twice: once for saying a curse in school which was fair enough. It had been a bad day. The other was for kicking Jimmy Byrne hard when she was wearing her clodhoppers. He’d deserved it though, the fecker. He never left her alone and he always pretended to be her friend when she had toffee.

Eibhlín’s thoughts turned to food again. Hunger was burning her insides but she didn’t want to complain to Granny. She did her best but there hadn’t been any work at the fishery this week. She only got a day or two when they were busy or someone was sick, or even died. Like when Mary Murphy died of the consumption, after three weeks in bed. Granny got lots of work for a while, until Mary’s daughter took over the job. Eibhlín’s thoughts switched to Granny’s rattling chest. It had been going on for a while now and she refused to go to the doctor saying it was only a ‘bad dose’.

She washed clothes and linen too, for the Undertaker Cullen across on Harbour Road. Mrs. Cullen was an ould bitch and wouldn’t let her daughter play with Eibhlín because she said she had nits. Granny had been furious, and nearly burned the head off her with paraffin, just in case. She had marched Eibhlín over to their front door and announced in diplomatic tones that her child was nit-free. Granny had said that Eibhlín was never to ask to play with any of the Cullens, ever. She supposed she might get reddened for that too.

The sun was going down and the evening chill brought her back inside. She grimaced at the smell of the cabbage bubbling in a small pot on the stove. Granny was sitting by the stove darning, with her skirt thrown over her knees and legs apart, to let the heat in. The sackcloth hung on a line of twine above her, and the smell of the soapy steam was pleasant and fresh.

It’s going to be one lovely smelling petticoat. I can’t wait to wear it to mass on Sunday,’ she beamed.

Granny kept her head down but smiled. Eibhlín knew that pleased her. She knew Granny was determined to get her up and hardy, like she had promised her Daddy.  Granny worried that she wasn’t getting enough food. Darkness passed over Granny’s face and Eibhlín sensed that she was remembering that sad time. She never met her father, or any of her family, but she had overheard Granny telling the tale.  She never spoke of it to Eibhlín. Her Daddy’s name was Joe. He was only twenty two when he’d come down with pneumonia after a hard winter in the fields. She was three and her sister barely born. On his deathbed he had asked Granny to take Eibhlín and bring her up so her mammy might move off to England to start again.

‘What about little May?’ Granny had whispered squeezing his hand tightly.

I’m coming back for her’.

They’d thought it was ‘the delirium’ from the fever and said no more. Sure enough though, little May became ill and died too, just weeks later. A tear escaped and ran down Granny’s leather cheek.

Granny, I’m hungry. Can we eat now?’

Yes Child’, she muttered, slowly making her way into an upright position.

She hobbled over to the pot on the stove and added salt. Her breath caught in her chest suddenly and she exploded with a rasping cough, reaching deep into her lungs. She stood still, holding her hanky to her mouth for a moment, as if trying to prevent another attack. After a moment she stood up and took a deep breath in.

Do you want the water with it?’

Eibhlín nodded furiously. She rocked on her chair in anticipation. Granny sat down at the table putting the bowl in front of her. Eibhlín shoveled the cabbage down her throat with gusto. Not a word was spoken until the dregs were drained. Sitting for a moment and let the food settle in her stomach, her attention moved onto the hard lump of bread sitting on the board, then to Granny who caught her eye, and back to the bread. Granny smirked and pulled the bread towards her, cutting off a bit and slathering it with the dripping Mrs. Hayden had kindly dropped in the day before. She sprinkled it with sugar while Eibhlín bored holes in it with her eager eyes. It was gobbled up within a few seconds.

That’s not good for yer belly Eibhlín’

Eibhlín said nothing. She craved another piece but knew not to ask.

She was stretching up and the neighbours often commented that Eibhlín was a good girl with manners. Although Granny wanted to leave her in school for as long as she could her chest had been so bad lately she wondered how it would all end. She willed herself not to think the worst for months, but it was getting worse, and now every night brought the dreaded fever.

Eibhlín loved Fridays! Usually there was a few bob after the wages had been doled out, and they often went directly from school up the street for a few bits. If it was a very good Friday she’d get a piece of toffee from Curran’s on the corner. Granny would sit on the window ledge puffing and panting while Eibhlín ran in and queued with her tuppence. Today was Friday. Eibhlín ran to the school gates anticipating Granny standing in her usual spot with the mothers, nattering and complaining about the cost of the herrings or the weather. Her shoulders dropped when she realised Granny wasn’t there. She flitted down the ditch as fast as her heavy school shoes allowed. The church bells were ringing loud and continuously in her ears. It occurred to her that it happened only on holy days or when someone died. She picked up her pace and began to run. She wanted to see if Granny was home to tell her about the bells. Letting herself in, she saw no fire had been lit that morning. Alarm ran up through her body. A whimper rushed up her throat and escaped through her lips. Something wasn’t right.

She jumped as the latch opened suddenly. Aunty Ellen entered and looked at her blankly for a moment, as if assessing what she should do next. Sighing heavily, she scanned the cottage. She spotted a flour sack hanging on a hook by the door and took it down. Walking towards Eibhlín, she handed it to her.

Put your things in that’

‘Why? That’s for my Easter dress. Granny’s going to soak it and sew it up for me. She told me.’

Eibhlín was wide-eyed. Aunty Ellen was a cross woman with a permanent scowl. Eibhlín had always had the impression that her Granny wasn’t fond of her.

Lord save us, will ye just do what yer told so we can get on with things, girl’

She arrived at Ellen’s house to old men sitting around drinking whiskey. Women in black were huddled in groups whispering. A man she knew named Pauric kept patting her head and blowing his bulbous nose.

‘Tis a cruel old World, that’s for sure’

She walked from one end of the cottage to the other, searching for Granny between the skirts and legs. She peered up now and then, to check for Granny’s familiar smile. So many strange faces looked down at her. Some were tear-stained; others seemed wistful. She found Ellen in the kitchen stewing tea and cutting bread.

Where’s my Granny. Is she in the infirmary with the consumption?’

Aunty Ellen looked down at her. Her face softened momentarily and she pulled her up from under her arms plonking her on the table.

Now listen Eibhlín. Things have changed. You’re going to live here with me and the boys. You’ll have to be a big girl now and do as yer bid, right?’

She took a big shiny coin out from her apron pocket and put it in front of Eibhlín’s face. She smiled broadly inviting her to take it.

What about a bit of toffee, for the day that’s in it eh?’.

But-’

Her face changed quickly.

Mark my words, I won’t be pandering to ye the way your granny did. Off to the shop with ye and be grateful for what ye have’

Eibhlín grabbed the coin and jumped down from the table.

On the way back from the shop a boy from her class called Joe stopped her.

Looking for half my toffee no doubt.

Sorry for your loss’

‘What loss?’

Your Granny. Lord have mercy on her soul’

She stopped in her tracks. A surge of shock took her and her knees buckled, taking her to the ground.

Book Review: Small Island by Andrea Levy

Small IslandSmall Island by Andrea Levy

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Set in 1948, both Hortense and Gilbert’s desire for living the dream in the ‘mother Country’ land them together in their struggle to make their way in a new World. This World is not the one they thought it was and it takes time to make sense of it all. Their lives intertwine with an English couple who are also stumbling blindly through the war and the aftermath, reassessing their own moral compasses
This is, quite frankly, the best novel I’ve read in some time. Insightful and full of revelations, Levy teaches us a lessons in misconceptions of identity. Along with learning some valuable British and Jamaican history, I rejoiced in such well written characters and was immersed in the evoking plot from start to finish.
Structurally, the novel was not ordered in a traditional way. Each chapter represented the perspective of one character. They were not divided equally nor in chronological order. No, they were strategically ordered in a way to reveal each characters past and how it effected their present circumstances.
I miss this book and would love to read about these characters further on in their lives.

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