Review: “Corkscrew” by Peter Stafford-Bow

I have a confession to make: there are no more cookbooks in the queue for a while. Some of my newer readers might be shocked to find that I also read other non-fiction. And assorted fiction. Call it brain candy – and no worries, there are no calories attached. This particular novel kept me engaged from absurd beginning to topsy-turvy end. Which is funny, because Peter Stafford-Bow is actually a pseudonym, and some of the events are based on the real person-behind-the-name’s real-life experiences.

“Corkscrew” is the perfect companion for an afternoon or an evening (or two) when you just want to sit back and unwind (pun not particularly original, but nonetheless intended). Young Felix Hart faces the daunting possibility of ending up a loser straight out of school, but fate has something better in store for him: a stellar career in the wine industry! Learning that he has a real knack for highly specialized retail, Felix embarks on the crazy journey of a lifetime, aided by a cast of colorful characters (I guarantee that you’ll remember Wodin, Wikus, and the Spott-Hythes long after you’ve finished the book) and a vast assortment of equally unlikely, yet wonderfully entertaining events.  Like a James Bond of viticulture, Felix always has time for little relaxation on the job, as well. You simply must stay for the outrageous climax that could end Felix’s spot at the top of the ladder, because luckily, there is just one more twist in store. Pour yourself a glass of your favorite bevvy, keep your tongue stuck firmly in your cheek, and see if you can pick up enough pointers to pass the Minstrel of Wine examination!

Grape Experiences has posted a funny and informative Q&A with author Peter Stafford-Bow for those who are interested in the story behind the story.

“Corkscrew” is published by Thistle Publishing. At this point, I really must send a special thank-you to David Haviland, who does his best to ensure his quirky titles get the coverage they deserve. I received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for a review. Needless to say, all opinions are my own, except where otherwise stated.

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Review: “Ohio” by Stephen Markley

“Do you ever review fiction?” my husband asked the other day. As a matter of fact, I do (and have, here, here, here, and here). It just seems to be an easier task to get hold of good non-fiction. There must be a LOT of reviewers vying for the approval lists for fiction titles. Sometimes, I get lucky. And sometimes, I get very lucky. “Ohio” is one of those latter instances of a lot of luck. I may be having a bear of a time finding employment, but at least the reading list stays interesting.

“Ohio” is the debut novel of author Stephen Markley, a man so mysterious that his biography contains less factual content than the first two sentences of this post. I would love to know why he decided to set his story in the fictional midwestern town of New Canaan (for fact lovers: there is a Canaan, Ohio, although I cannot say how much or if at all it has influenced the description of the setting in the book). I live only one state over, however, and many of the problems of the area more or less affectionately named “the Rust Belt”, like dying industry and shrinking agriculture, apply across the swath of the upper Midwest.

The novel drops us into a memorial parade for a young soldier, a son of New Canaan, killed in action only a handful of years after high school graduation. Ah, you think to yourself, this is about the dead kid! It could have been, but it isn’t. The next chapters introduce us to people from Rick’s circle, both close and not so close. As each character has his or her story told, the voice changes accordingly. If you are easily confused by storytelling techniques such as this, you’ve been warned. Aha!, you might exclaim, it’s about something that connects all these kids! Definitely warmer. There is indeed a common thread here, at first barely perceptible, but naggingly present, even if its true meaning is not revealed until much later.

There is also a character study here, although it’s not of people, it’s of a town. Sure, you nod, there are lots of points to New Canaan that I recognize. And you will, as I did, but again, don’t take things at face value here. This is not about The Town Next Door, so to speak, but goes much deeper. New Canaan is a place that breeds its own kind of horror and tragedy, and what will hook you in and make you stay with the narrative until its breathtaking conclusion is the realization that, perhaps, nobody who has spent any real time in this town gets away unscathed – not even minor characters.

Adjectives like “breathtaking,” “heartstopping,” and the ever-overused “stunning” give me goosebumps, and not for a good reason, but where “Ohio” is concerned, they are not only applicable but true. When I finished the book, I felt as if someone had clonked me in the head with a shovel: I was unable to do anything but sit there and breathe, until I had collected myself. That is why “Ohio” is hands down THE best novel I have read this year, and why you should not miss it when it comes out in August!

“Ohio” is published by Simon & Schuster. I received a free copy of this novel from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for a review. All opinions are my own.

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Review: “The Warehouse Industry” by William Macbeth

Perhaps it is an odd life goal to not draw attention to oneself, but that is exactly the place in which the narrator of “The Warehouse Industry” finds himself. Socially awkward and insecure, he does his best to blend in, yet still manages to stand out far more than he’s comfortable with. In order to fit in, he often finds himself going along with things he actually finds disagreeable. Slowly, over the course of twenty years, he reveals his story, told through flashbacks, from his elder brother’s stag night, his own sketchy employment history, up to his brother’s second wedding. It is this wedding which turns out to be a pivotal, indeed cataclysmic, point in his life.

The narrator seems oddly disengaged, but the book draws the reader in, nonetheless. For those disinclined to read lengthy tomes, fear not: I found this book well-paced to the point where I was somewhat surprised to suddenly find myself deposited at its conclusion.

Mr. Macbeth employs repetition as one of the narrator’s distinguishing features; after all, he has problems holding on to facts. What could make events and people more real than searing their details into one’s brain? The reader may find this way of storytelling somewhat irritating to begin with, but I ask you to persevere. “The Warehouse Industry” has a few unexpected twists in store that will definitely do anything but not draw your attention.

“The Warehouse Industry” is published by Thistle Publishing. I received a free copy for review. All opinions are my own.

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Review: “Secret Passages in a Hillside Town” by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen

Olli Suominen, publisher, husband, and father, lives in small town in Finland. His two most distinguishing traits are a tendency to lose umbrellas and a penchant for detailed, disturbing dreams. When the town is gripped by the surprising bestseller, How to Live a Cinematic Life, by local author, Greta Kara, Olli, like many of his fellow citizens, joins a film club whose mission it is to work through Greta’s film suggestions and the advice based thereupon. It turns out that Greta is looking for a publisher for her upcoming book, a magical travel guide set in the small hillside town of Jyväskylä, where both she and Olli grew up. When she reaches out to him via Facebook, Olli’s life is thrown into turmoil.

Up to now, you might think that Secret Passages is just another novel about an unhappy man trapped in an unhappy relationship looking to rekindle a long-extinguished romance. You would be wrong. This is, after all, a book of magical realism, where abovementioned passages appear in unlikely places and lead to unpredictable destinations, with unforeseeable results. The events that happen to Olli and Greta in the course of the story are rooted in a long-buried secret from their shared past whose actual enormity is skilfully and purposefully unveiled to the reader chapter by chapter, like a bud blossoming in slow motion. In the end, the novel presents two alternative courses of action, but can there be a happy ending in either one? I’m not going to tell you, because Secret Passage in a Hillside Town is a book you need to read for yourself to experience its beauty and tragedy fully.

Besides being an engaging read, this novel is also a wonderful example of an excellent translation, work that in my opinion isn’t really appreciated enough. In this case, translation credits go to Lola M. Rogers.

Secret Passages in a Hillside Town is published by Pushkin Press. I received a copy via Netgalley in exchange for a review. All opinions are my own.

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Review: “How to Love a Jamaican” by Alexia Arthurs

Short stories are a genre I never paid much attention to. Sure, I have some Bradbury on my shelf, alongside Salinger and Roald Dahl, but the label “short story” was not a good endorsement to get me to read a particular book – until recently. Interestingly, it’s been the young, female writers that have awakened a never-before-suspected passion for story collections (and poetry, but that is another thing altogether). Alexia Arthurs is one of these writers that should not be missed.

The most significant summary of Ms Arthurs’s biography is the fact that she was “born and raised in Jamaica and moved with her family to Brooklyn when she was twelve.” This real-life experience informs the characters and narratives in “How to Love a Jamaican.” The primary focus lies on female characters (although brothers, lovers, fathers, and other males are definitely present, and one story is even told from the perspective of a male narrator): Mothers and daughters, grandmothers, best friends, and even mermaids make appearances. Ms Arthurs ponders questions of identity and heritage, often leaving her characters in a state of tension as they struggle with finding a place for themselves in their given circumstances. From the get-go, her writing style is lively and immediately engaging. I found myself looking forward to meeting each new character as one story after another unfolded among the pages. Often, the reader is left with a sense of profound loss or melancholy, a clear sign of how masterfully Ms Arthurs manages to engage her audience.

Oddly, the one story that did not resonate with me at all was the rather long title story, and the reason for this disconnect was the irritating use of grammar. Within the narrative, Arthurs continually switches between past and present tense, without a clear indication of the purpose of this narrative device. While the main character, a successful singer more than casually reminiscent of Rihanna, clearly struggles with her own loneliness and the death of an acquaintance, this pain stays well locked on the page, making her seem distant and therefore not quite relatable. Then again, never having been a famous anything myself, perhaps I’m missing a crucial piece of experience in order to fully “feel” the story.

“How to Love a Jamaican” is published by Random House Publishing Group – Ballantine. I was provided a copy by Netgalley in exchange for a review. All opinions are my own.

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Review: “Woodcutter” by Shaun Baines

From the publisher’s description:

“SOME FAMILY TREES ARE MEANT TO FALL…

On the run from his criminal family, Daniel Dayton returns home to Newcastle Upon Tyne when his abandoned daughter is attacked.

But his family have problems of their own. Targeted by a brutal mercenary, their empire is destined to be destroyed should Daniel refuse to help.

Betrayed by his parents. Despised by his brother. In love with his sister-in-law. Home has become a dangerous place to be.

Daniel wants his daughter safe. And he wants his revenge, but in the shadowy streets of Newcastle, things are never what they seem.”

If you want to know what Shaun Baines’s debut novel is about, this blurb will give you the right idea without me having to provide spoilers. At first, I found it somewhat difficult to really get into the rhythm of the story, primarily because the writing reminds me very much of the German dimestore publication, “G-Man Jerry Cotton”, which is full of gangster jargon and clichés. Then again, ol’ Jerry has been going strong since 1954, so clearly, this type of writing does not necessarily speak against a book. In fact, as I continued reading, I eventually stopped noticing (or possibly, Mr Baines hit a more literary stride in his writing style). Mind you, this says nothing at all about the quality of the story yet; just be forewarned that if you tend to be as picky as I am, you may have a tough time enjoying Woodcutter.

‘Yeah, yeah, but what about the STORY?’ Well, dear readers, here you are in luck: Mr Baines skilfully weaves a tale of conflict and deception, with clever twists and turns that maintain the suspense. By the middle of the book, I was so engrossed that I felt compelled to keep reading all the way to the end! The deviousness of those aiming to use Daniel Dayton for their own purposes runs deep, indeed. I am pleased to say that although I am not aware of any plans for a follow-up, Mr Baines has certainly left himself the option to write one (or more), having established his characters, some future conflict, and even potential storylines.

Woodcutter is published by Thistle Publishing. I received an advanced copy for review; all opinions are my own.

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