Category Archives: Four Star

‘The Stationery Shop’ by Marjan Kamali

This is a unique story set in 1953 Tehran against the backdrop of the Iranian Coup. It’s about a young couple in love who are separated on the eve of their marriage, and who are reunited sixty years later, after both have moved on to live independent lives in America. It’s a sweeping romantic tale of thwarted love amidst the chaos of unrest. There’s really not enough information to classify it as historical fiction, although it does give a flavour of that place during that time.

The novel begins very effectively at the end of the story, when Roya and Bahman meet again, begging the question of what happened all those years ago. As the author flashes back, the story slowly unfolds. Why did these young lovers fail to meet up? How did they manage to find each other again so late in life? What was the truth in the tale and what deceptions may have been at play? Despite being a bit tedious and occasionally cliché, I really liked this book. I did feel hugely sorry for one character, and it’s not who you might think.

‘Jewelweed’ by David Rhodes

This sequel to Driftless, carried on seamlessly with many of the same characters in Words, Wisconsin. I loved the kids in this instalment. They get themselves into some very unique adventures. I worried about Blake who is out of prison but risks re-entry because all of the odds are against him, and very few people are willing to help. There is a budding secret romance and a pastor with a crisis of faith. There is a family not coping with the constant care of two seniors and a very ill child, who enlist the help of a spunky young woman with burdens of her own. The writing is filled with empathy and wonder. As with Driftless, this is not a quick read but the time spent is well worth it.

‘Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, How We Can Learn to Fulfill our Potential’ by Carol Dweck

Darwin said it’s not the smartest or the strongest that survive, it’s the ones who adapt and are the most responsive to change.

This book has a crummy title but an important message. Having the word ‘success’ in the title is completely misleading because it’s not about that at all. With what I know now about the author’s message, it’s surprising she could give her book this title (let’s blame it on the publisher). It’s an older book, I’m apparently a bit late to the party, but I think it’s a good reminder even if you know about this.

The main idea is very simple and is explained well. Perhaps too well since many reviews complain about the repetition in this book. But that’s because the main point is so simple; it has to get repeated over and over in different contexts. The audio version was exceedingly annoying in this regard. However, the message was great and has value for everyone at any age or stage! So my advice for the book would be to read the beginning to pick up the main idea, and then skip to other chapters of interest that deal with work relationships, school situations, friendship issues, etc. I particularly enjoyed the chapters on marriage, the workplace, parenting, and teaching. So let’s get to the point. It’s all about mindset.

Fixed mindset vs. Growth mindset
People with a fixed mindset — those who believe that abilities are fixed — are less likely to flourish than those with a growth mindset — those who believe that abilities can be developed. People with a fixed mindset believe talent is everything and failure is to be avoided at all costs. Having a growth mindset is all about having a healthy attitude towards challenge and being willing to fail if it means learning something in the process. It’s about learning from mistakes and growing from them instead of judging yourself to be either super smart or a hopeless case. It’s about using the right language when you talk to your kids and not setting yourself up for failure in your marriage because your fixed mindset says that because you love each other there will never be any struggle. What went wrong and how can I do better next time? What did you learn today? What mistakes did you make that taught you something? I’m really proud that you picked a difficult subject for your project, you are going to learn so much (instead of advising the easy way out so that they can get top marks). They’ll be more willing to take on bigger challenges with a growth mindset.

 

‘Driftless’ by David Rhodes

Driving through rural America while reading this book was so perfect. Rhodes makes the characters come alive with the way he describes them…flawed, salt of the earth people just trying to cope with life and living. As we drove along cornfields, swept over soft green hillsides, and crept through tired and deflated little towns, it was possible to picture who might be living there. Rhodes’ writing is so generous and insightful without even a hint of cliché. This is slow reading that brings quiet understanding, so it won’t be for everyone, but it is a wonderful story to sink into for those who love authors who can speak to the wisdom of the soul and turn the mundane into profound reflections on life and humanity. Although having said that, shocking things do happen and at times the pace is fast-moving enough. Other authors who are similar in style are Elizabeth Strout (Olive Kitteridge), William Kent Kruger (Ordinary Grace), Mary Lawson (Crow Lake), and Marilynne Robinson (Gilead).

As a young man David Rhodes worked in fields, hospitals and factories across Iowa. After receiving an MFA degree from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop (always pay attention to writers who have studied here, they are the best!) he published three novels from 1972-75. In 1977 a motorcycle accident left him paralysed from the chest down. After ten years he published again, with this sequel to his earlier novel Rock Island Line and prequel to Jewelweed which I am eager to read next. Rhodes lives with his wife, Edna, in rural Wisconsin.

In ten words or less this book is about a bunch of people muddling through in small town Wisconsin. But it is so much more than that. There is connection to the land, to place, and to community. There is mistrust of big business and industrialisation–things that are a threat to a simple way of life. There is a fidelity to good values, hard work, and something to believe in. Here’s what Goodreads says, “The setting is Words, Wisconsin, an anonymous town of only a few hundred people. But under its sleepy surface, life rages. Cora and Grahm guard their dairy farm, and family, from the wicked schemes of their milk co-op. Lifelong paraplegic Olivia suddenly starts to walk, only to find herself crippled by her fury toward her sister and caretaker, Violet. Recently retired Rusty finds a cougar living in his haymow, dredging up haunting childhood memories. Winifred becomes pastor of the Friends church and stumbles on enlightenment in a very unlikely place. Driftless finds the author’s powers undiminished in this unforgettable story that evokes a small-town America previously unmapped, and the damaged denizens who must make their way through it.”

 

‘The Huntress’ by Kate Quinn

There are number of ‘women in war’ books that I’ve enjoyed: Code Name Verity, The Nightingale, and this author’s other book The Alice Network to name just a few. The Huntress is about war heroes, war criminals, and Nazi hunters. It’s also about journalists and photographers who were crucial participants in the war effort.

I found the book was longer than it needed to be but in the end I think it was well done and I’m glad I stuck with it. It’s not a quick read (until the last 100 pages), but still worth it both as background to the characters in the novel, as well as for historical content. I did learn a lot of new things about WW 2 which is amazing considering how many novels about that time period I’ve read. So kudos to the author for that!

Three narrators take turns telling the story: a battle-haunted British journalist, a feisty female Russian fighter pilot, and a young woman photographer in America who has a very mysterious step-mother who may well be a monster. I don’t consider that a spoiler because with a title like “The Huntress,” a reader would have to be quite dim not to see what was going on early in the novel and that’s ok. With that knowledge the tension builds in the present at the same time as the backstories converge to a thrilling climax.

‘If You Want to Make God Laugh’ by Bianca Marais

A pregnant teen in dire straits. A disgraced former nun. A wealthy socialite with a drinking problem. Three unique narrators with very different voices tell their stories in this amazing novel set in post-apartheid South Africa. Of course the author soon brings them all together in this highly absorbing and well told tale of friendship, hardship, and survival.

Each woman has a personal crisis to deal with and there are many secrets and twists and turns to keep the reader turning pages. It also speaks gently of the political and social situation in South Africa while nurturing a love for the continent and its people. The author fearlessly tackles tricky topics like racism, identity, sexual violence, motherhood, and belonging.  There are dark realities in this story but they are beautifully tempered with hope and redemption.

Loved this novel and would highly recommend it!! Great book club read! Also enjoyed her earlier novel Hum If You Don’t Know the Words, but I liked this one better.

‘Mr Doubler Begins Again’ by Seni Glaister

This book is about potatoes, gin, and friendship…Seldom have I rooted so enthusiastically for a character in a book. Doubler is a potato farmer extraordinaire, happy enough going about his routines on Mirth Farm and sharing his lunch everyday with his housekeeper Mrs Millwood, until she is taken seriously ill, and his neighbour threatens to take his land. Despite suffering betrayals very close to home, he is spurred by loneliness and self-preservation to gain new confidence as he steps far into uncharted and uncomfortable territory.

An amusing and charming old-fashioned tale full of surprises, quirky characters, and fresh dialogue, it reminded me of The Unlikely Pilgrimmage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce, so if you liked that, you’ll love this. Though a little slow at times, if you are a patient reader who enjoys sinking into a gentle and charming story that is well-told, this is a book for you.