Untangling the dramas of a seemingly normal family makes for an authentic read.
A Spool of Blue Thread
By Anne Tyler (Chatto & Windus)
A Spool of Blue Thread is a story about an ordinary American family, the Whitshanks. Except, of course, no family is entirely ordinary. All have their secrets, their tensions, dreams and dramas. To know them you have to be right inside the family to see and hear it all. And that's where author Anne Tyler takes us in this gently unfolding tale of four generations who live in a beautiful old house in Baltimore. The story is centred on Abby and Red Whitshank as they are growing old and it seems as if their house must be sold and an era must come to an end. What's amazing about this novel is how finely attuned Tyler is to the many subtleties and layers of everyday life. She writes remarkably of unremarkable things. She is in her 70s now so old age inevitably forms a major theme in the narrative but what this novel, her 20th, is really about is human relationships and the way lives tangle together. It is full of small wisdoms and great truths. By the final page the Whitshanks will feel like people you know - you may even recognise aspects of your own family in them. This is authentic and fully formed fiction.
Searching for Grace Kelly
By M G Callahan (Sphere)
The title of this novel is misleading. It's not a story about Grace Kelly at all. She never makes an appearance. Instead it is centred on the Barbizon, a woman-only hotel in New York where Kelly, with a host of other famous names, once lived before they were discovered.
Barbizon girls were modern, stylish and seeking exciting new lives in the city. Their families sent them to the hotel because it was respectable and strictly run, a "combined charm school and dormitory" as Callahan puts it. He's written about its history for Vanity Fair (find his article at vanityfair.com) and, inspired by his research, has woven a fiction around the romance of the place.
Set in the 1950s, it's about three young women who form an unlikely friendship beneath the Barbizon's roof. Waspy Laura is there for a magazine internship, Dolly is a secretary and Vivian is working as a cigarette girl. All yearn for love and dream of better things but one of them is heading for tragedy. Searching for Grace Kelly is slickly written and captures all the glamour of the Mad Men era. It's an enjoyable piece of period chick lit and very readable but I'd have to say not especially memorable. I finished it feeling as if the Barbizon had better tales to tell.
The Cat's out of the Bag
By Max Cryer (Exisle)
Cats are the undisputed stars of the internet so it would seem that Auckland writer Max Cryer is on to a winner with this compendium of feline facts and tales. These range from words and phrases the cat has lent the English language and quirky stories about cats from all round the world, to details about their bodies and behaviour, their history as well as their contribution to pop culture and literature. It's a lucky dip of a book that should delight cat lovers with the sheer range of information about their furry friends. It does seem a shame more hasn't been made of the illustrations, particularly as this is avid researcher and historian Cryer's second volume of cat miscellany and I suspect covers much the same ground. Reworked with glossier pages and cuter pictures it would have made a lovely gift book. Seems a missed opportunity.
The Hawley Book of the Dead
By Chrysler Szarlan (Random House)
The author's time as a magician's assistant lends her debut novel an authentic feel, for all that it is filled with supernatural stalkers, eerie family history, enchanted forests, haunted houses and mystic books. Reve Dyer is a Las Vegas magician whose skills, at least partly, are more real than her audience realises. When tragedy strikes, Reve and her three daughters flee to Hawley and a house with plenty of skeletons in its closets. So far, so spooky. But sadly there are a few too many supernatural ideas competing for attention, as well as a government cover-up and a love interest that feel tacked on, not to mention a third-act plot reveal that deflates any dramatic tension. The threads for a great story are all here but they just need winding more tightly together.
Review by Kerri Jackson an Auckland freelance journalist.
By A F Harrold, illustrated by Emily Gravett (Bloomsbury)
The Imaginary is a darkly comic, unsettling read aimed at children aged 9 to 11. It explores the highs and lows of a child's vivid imagination through Amanda Shuffleup and her imaginary friend Rutger. Everything is going well until the evil Mr Bunting arrives intending to eat Rutger as a snack (he hunts "imaginaries"). Rutger is separated from Amanda and finds himself alone and fading, wondering how he can survive if nobody can see him. A gripping read that follows Rutger's adventures until the two are brought together again - it's the stuff of dreams and of nightmares.
Review by Danielle Wright, creator of award-winning children's books and the news site: newsmummy.com
The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks
By E Lockhart (Allen & Unwin)
This is a fascinating novel for teenage girls with a strong feminist lead. We meet Frankie at age 14. She's a bit geeky, attends a smart boarding school in New York State and idolises her older sister. At 15, Frankie has changed. She is no longer under the shadow of her sister, has a cool new boyfriend, knockout figure, sharp tongue and a chip on her shoulder. The thing we love about Frankie is she doesn't take no for an answer, and doesn't follow the crowd. When she finds out that her new boyfriend is a member of an all-male secret society, Frankie decides to change the rules. Frankie at 16 is possibly a criminal mastermind!
Review by Tracey Lawton of the Village Bookshop in Matakana.