Tuesday, March 22, 2011

dolci di love

[Australia/New Zealand cover]

Dolci di Love, by Sarah-Kate Lynch, is the story of Lily Turner, a "Manhattan workaholic" who discovers her husband is not only cheating on her but has another family in Tuscany. What does she do? She gets drunk and buys a plane ticket to Italy. She arrives in the tiny town of Montevedova, unaware that she is being watched by a troupe of ancient widows - the Secret League of Widowed Darners - who are planning her happy ending. 

The basic premise is pretty familiar. I don't know about you, but I've come across rather a lot of marriage-in-crisis, hop-on-a-plane-to-Tuscany stories, whether they are rom-coms or chick-lit or finding-myself-memoirs. I thought this might be rather a fun read, but nothing particularly special.

Well, in many ways I was right. This is a fun read. Sarah-Kate Lynch's writing style is gregarious, conversational and rather delightful. It's funny. It's sweet. I was hooked from the very. First. Sentence. Tuscany is brought alive to the page. This is definitely one of the most enjoyable books I've reviewed since starting this blog.

All the same, I was fundamentally wrong when I thought that because the premise was familiar this book couldn't be special. There is much more to Lily Turner than we are first told, and there is more to her cheating husband. This is also a story about the pain of being childless, and the effect it has had on a marriage. As enjoyable as the story is, it is also very thoughtful and actually quite a profound portrait of a character. I am encouraged again in the revelation that literature doesn't have to be highbrow or inaccessible to have depth. I also enjoyed the number of clichés set up by Lynch, like the gorgeous, wealthy and melancholy Alessandro, only to be dashed in pieces to the ground. It's not so familiar a premise after all.

I really enjoyed this book. I was a little disappointed with the excessive tidiness of the ending, so I'm not rating it quite so highly as I would otherwise have done, but I really liked this novel nonetheless. It was a breath of fresh air after the dark and intense weeks following the earthquake in Christchurch and the disasters in Japan - exactly what I needed to cheer me up again. I give it four stars.

[American cover]

Monday, March 14, 2011


"A young man is found unconscious in a remote forest. He is over seven-feet tall, his skin covered in thick hair, which reminds onlookers of an animal's pelt. When he wakes in a city hospital, he is eerily uncommunicative.
"Speculation begins."

Fascinated by the myths of the yeti or the sasquatch, and the Maori near-equivalent of the maero, Emma Neale has written this novel, Fosterling. It explores the possibility of an outsider who stumbles into human society, and how humans will respond. Bu, the young man in question, has lived almost his entire life in the lush native forests of South Westland (New Zealand) with his parents, who hid from public view after bringing their adoptive son home from Nepal. Now, he arrives in the city of Dunedin, determined to learn about the world and about his own origins. Unsurprisingly, in the fashion of all classic outsider stories, he encounters difficulty after difficulty, and disappointment after disappointment.

I'm not surprised to learn, after reading the novel, that Emma Neale is a poet, because this book is written beautifully. Her writing style is very lyrical, very flowing, even as it is easy to read. It never jars and it is not at all laboured - no one phrase sticks out disproportionately, but all the sentences come together as a whole that is obviously lovely. It's a gift that can't be taught, I think. And she has it.

I liked the possibilities Neale discusses. I like the way she shows up the problems with our own society or the potential problems of shielding children too much, without ever saying these things out loud or giving easy answers. Her main characters tend to be quite vivid, larger than life, and easy to imagine.

Despite all these strengths, however, something didn't click for me. And it's hard to explain why, because so many of the components of this novel are right on target. Here are some ideas, though.

- The novel doesn't seem to go anywhere. It is, perhaps, lacking the classic story arc in all its strength. Neale spends time building up one part of the story, and one other character as if this is her story as well, and then this part and this character disappear. Other things happen. And then other things happen. And then the novel ends.

- The story switches between narrators every few pages. Much of the time it is Bu, and secondary characters, and then sometimes it is an entirely new character who we will never see again. I can certainly understand why Neale has chosen to write the novel this way. If it were all written in third person narrative, we wouldn't get glimpses into Bu's mind in such an immediate way. But if it were all written in Bu's perspective, we wouldn't understand how he appears to other people. So it seems an obvious choice to change narrators reasonably often.

This approach can work. It's a standard tool of classic Victorian authors like Bram Stoker or Wilkie Collins. However, for me, in this novel, it created a disjointed, jumpy feeling, which was especially evident in the ending. Despite the flowing prose, the plot and the structure did not flow well.

Anyway, in the end, although I think this is a novel that is worth reading, for its prose, for its characters, for its ideas, it is not entirely successful in the end. I am a little bit sad about this, because it seemed so promising. So I have given it two and a half stars.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

overcoat inspiration

My review of Sue Orr's From Under the Overcoat is now posted on Halfway Down the Stairs. If I have to take it down I will re-post it on here! (I've been naughty and made a late addition to the March issue - hopefully my co-editors will not object!)

This is a short story collection that I loved - both for its interesting inspiration and its fulfilment in ten short stories. Find all the details of my love for it on HDtS. My one minor gripe with it is that almost all of its stories are called 'New Zealand stories' - however, they are all set in the North Island. As a southerner, I object!

However, parochialism aside, this is a really enjoyable collection of stories, and I recommend it highly. I give it four stars.

Thursday, March 3, 2011


Warning: Halfway Down the Stairs is haunted. In our new March issue, you will find ghosts of many kinds - both kindly and menacing - and in a number of forms. You may even find hauntings of the mind, a slightly more abstract form.

I love this issue and am so glad we chose such a fun theme. There's plenty of beautiful poetry, as always - and as a fiction editor I am very happy with the selection of stories we have on offer this time. I particularly like Ken Teutsch's "The Storm on Promise Land Road" and Eliza Granville's "The Villa on Tumatawarea Street", but voted yes enthusiastically for all of them, really.

My contribution this time has been a review of Roma Tearne's The Swimmer, which I reviewed a few weeks ago on here. The earthquake has prevented me from finishing my review of Sue Orr's From Under the Overcoat, but I intend to be a little bit naughty and add it to the site in a couple of weeks, if the other editors do not object, because I loved this new collection of short stories, and really want to review it on HDtS before June.

If you are so inclined, we are looking for a new poetry editor. Details here on how to apply.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011


I am going to be a little bit absent over the next few weeks. One week ago my town was hit by a horrible earthquake which has killed at least 150 people and possibly up to 240. Photos of the changes to my city. It's going to be some time before normality returns and I am finding it hard to concentrate on everything that I thought was important before this happened. I am still reading new books, and I will be writing reviews, but I want to apologise in advance, in the expectation that this blog will be a low priority for a while.