Monday, 22 February 2016

The Oddfits by Tiffany Tsao / Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson / Lonely Is The Valley by Gwen Kirkwood

The Oddfits by Tiffany Tsao
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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I received a copy of The Oddfits by Tiffany Tsao from its publishers, Amazon Crossing, via NetGalley in exchange for my honest review. The novel is set in Singapore which appealed to me as I know very little about the city and Tsao gives lots of interesting insights into everyday life there. I loved the cover art too!

Tsao has created a great character in her protagonist, the unfortunately named Murgatroyd Floyd. A blonde haired, blue eyed caucasian child of British parents, Murgatroyd hasn't found his place in Singapore, even though he has never lived anywhere else, and Tsao uses this extreme example of not belonging to highlight the sense of alienation that most of us feel at one time or another. Physically different and socially inept, and with a name that is unpronounceable to Singaporean tongues, Murgatroyd only finds 'home' in an ice-cream shop owned by a strange elderly man who had previously vanished for over sixty years. Billed as science fiction, The Oddfits does take its readers to other worlds, sort of, but it is essentially a novel about how we view ourselves and how other people see us. Murgatroyd seems to call out to be pitied, yet he doesn't see himself as especially hard done by. He is content in a job that suits him perfectly, with a best friend he has known since his school days, and with parents who always do their best for him. However, once he meets a one-eyed woman in a green dress, he begins to wonder whether his future is quite so clear as he had once believed.

I frequently found myself smiling at the rich and often bizarre imagery in The Oddfits and I now really, really want to visit Singapore. There's lots of delicious-sounding food there for a start - this is another novel to read with snacks on standby! The idea of L'Abbatoir restaurant is gorily appealing although I am far to squeamish to ever eat there, and the Duck Assassin is one scary creation. I did like Olivia and James too - not as they are, obviously, but the idea that people could really behave like that is great for the book. This is a fun read with a seriously thoughtful side. It won't appeal to sci-fi fans who like action-packed books, but those who like to take a sideways glance at our own world will probably enjoy the ideas a lot.


Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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I picked up my vintage copy of Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson at a campsite book exchange in France knowing nothing about the author and being primarily attracted to the book by virtue of its being a King Penguin publication - the writing would at least be of a good standard even if the story wasn't completely to my taste. As it turned out, both writing and story were superb. Housekeeping is very likely to feature in my Top Ten list for 2016!

Set in small town America, in the wonderfully named Fingerbone, Housekeeping is told from the point of view of Ruthie, the younger of two sisters left orphaned after their mother's suicide. Abandoned to their grandmother's care then briefly picked up by a pair of nervous great-aunts, before finding themselves coping with (or in spite of) the best intentions of their traveller aunt Sylvie, the girls are left increasingly to their own devices with fascinating results. Robinson describes what could be seen as an idyllic childhood, roaming free instead of attending school, but all around are reminders of what the girls have lost and, perhaps more importantly, what they still do not have. When elder sister Lucille begins to rebel against Sylvie, we as readers suddenly understand how the family are viewed by the rest of the town and how rigidly narrow their expected life path should be.

I love how Robinson writes women. The great-aunts have so obviously always been together that they cannot even speak independently. Even Helen's brief thoughtfulness in providing her children food, although she will leave them moments later, is a very real detail beautifully portrayed. I was gripped by Ruthie's narration throughout the novel and her ultimate decision of whose expectations should direct her life is emotional to read.


Lonely is the Valley by Gwen Kirkwood
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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I received a copy of Lonely Is The Valley by Gwen Kirkwood from its publishers, Endeavour Press, to read in preparation for their Virtual Historical Fiction Festival which is happening in April. As Kirkwood is a Scottish author, I am counting this as my second book for the 2016 Read Scotland Challenge.

Lonely Is The Valley is set in a rural Welsh farming community at the time of its writing, the mid-1980s. I admit to being surprised at its era having expected books with a greater time distance for a Historical Fiction Festival read. If my childhood years are considered history now, then I must be older than I think! The plotline follows a pretty standard 'light romance' trajectory from antagonism to love with most of the action being driven by missed communication and misunderstandings. I liked the descriptions of the valley itself and the close-knit community vibe, however I was disappointed with the shallow characterisation which made it difficult for me to believe in our protagonists' interactions. The novel is infuriatingly dated in its gender attitudes too.

Ceri Owen, the heroine, is frequently described as independent, yet rarely displays any behaviour other than that of a doormat. Mark, her would-be suitor, is creepily patronising, controlling and emotionally abusive yet, as readers, we are apparently not only supposed to find these attractive traits, but also to blithely accept that being sexually assaulted by him triggers thoughts of love in Ceri. I frequently felt very uncomfortable while reading Lonely Is The Valley. Mark's treating of Ceri as if she is a child and her own clinging need to be subservient to a male figure, almost at any cost, is decidedly awkward and an unhealthy example to promote as a desirable relationship.


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