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The Categorical Universe of Candice Phee


The Categorical Universe of Candice Phee by Barry Jonsberg (Chronicle Books, $16.99, 248 pages
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Perhaps you’ve heard the comment, “He’s a bit of an odd duck.” Well, Candice Phee, a twelve-year-old who lives in a suburb of Brisbane, Australia is surely an odd duck. The inability to lie, even a kindly white lie, is but one of her many quirky behavioral traits. Overwhelming shyness has led her to use written communication in uncomfortable situations such as prolonged discussions with adults other than her parents and with kids at school. She is a devout reader of the dictionary, which provides her with a remarkably broad and specific vocabulary.

Candice’s world is full of adults who are alienated (not aliens). Her mom is plagued by depression and her dad won’t have anything to do with his brother, Rich Uncle Brian, who is his former partner in a software company. Miss Bamford, Candice’s all-time favorite teacher has a lazy eye that sets her apart and draws reactions from her students.

The other kids in Miss Bamford’s sixth grade class, especially the ultra cool Jen Marshall, mock Candice. The arrival of a new and similarly odd student, Douglas Benson, creates an opportunity for Candice to experience friendship for the first time in her life. Their interactions are hilarious.

Miss Bamford has assigned Candice’s class the task of writing a narrative/autobiography using each letter of the alphabet as the theme of a paragraph. Thus, the primary structure of the book is Candice’s take on the assignment. Interspersed are the poignant and intelligent letters she has sent to her pen pal in New York City who doesn’t reply to Candice.

The Categorical Universe black and white

The Categorical Universe of Candice Phee is intended for readers ten years of age and up. Clearly, the audience for the book is a wide one. Fans of The Westing Game, young, old and any age in between, will thoroughly enjoy this heartwarming, sometimes gut-wrenching and ultimately satisfying tale. Author Barry Jonsberg has won numerous Australian writing awards. He is a teacher and resides in Darwin, Australia. This reviewer visited Darwin over 45 years ago, well before Mr. Jonsberg moved there from England. I hope he enjoys the barramundi fish that are plentiful in Darwin! Barramundi is my all-time favorite.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher. This book was released on September 9, 2014.

You can read a sample of this book for free on your Kindle device or app:

http://www.amazon.com/Categorical-Universe-Candice-Sneak-Preview-ebook/dp/B00MF2CLKI/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1414437440&sr=1-2&keywords=the+categorical+universe+of+candice+phee

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Chook Lit

The Fine Color of Rust: A Novel by P. A. O’Reilly (Washington Square Press, $15.00, 283 pages)

I never bother locking the house in this kind of heat.   It we shut the windows we’ll never sleep.

Gunapan is a made-up name for a town in Australia situated within driving distance of Melbourne.   Author P. A. O’Reilly brings her reader into hot, dusty inland Australia with the sights, sounds and textures of rural life.   A seven-year drought has produced a landscape that begs to be soothed by rain.   Moreover, numerous ladies of the town have been deserted by their husbands, leaving them to care for the children.

Loretta Boskovic, the main character, is struggling at a low paying job to support her daughter Melissa and son Jake in the wake of husband Tony’s departure several years ago.   Norm, who owns the town junk yard, is Loretta’s best friend and confidante.   There are the usual class distinctions as wealthy land owners living nearby flaunt their leisure and luxuries.   They magnify the disparity between themselves and the ordinary folks in Gunapan.

The Fine Color of Rust is an engaging tale of persistence, friendship and commitment.   Loretta is a heroine who draws from her inner strength to fight the closure of Halstead Primary, the local school.   Her poverty in no way diminishes the quality of her efforts as she seeks to persuade local and central government officials to keep Gunapan’s school.   Melissa and Jake are vulnerable kids who long for their dad’s return to the family.

Be prepared to really care about the best characters in this story as each one is portrayed in-depth for the reader.   Although this is a novel, there are a few small mysteries that run like underground streams throughout.   Rather than propel the plot, they add dimension and motivation for Loretta as she follows her passion to keep Halstead Elementary from closing.

Readers of Sophie Littlefield’s A Bad Day for… series will enjoy this change of scenery.

Highly recommended.Fine Color of Rust (nook book)

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  “…a story about love, where we look for it, what we do with it, and how it shows up in the most unexpected places.”   Big Issue, Australia

Note:  Chook Lit (a bit like Chick Lit) is a slang term used in Australia to describe stories set in the Outback and/or those depicting the gritty realities of life in the rural areas of the Land Down Under.

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Coming Up Next…

A review of The Fine Color of Rust: A Novel by P. A. O’Reilly.  Fine Color of Rust (med.-lg.)

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Time Travel Mysteries

The Secret Keeper: A Novel by Kate Morton (Atria Books, $26.99, 496 pages)

Every family has a secret or two.   It might be an escapade by great-aunt Sally that nobody wants to acknowledge for fear of losing social standing in the community.   On the other hand, it might be a secret so huge and shocking that it lays buried in the subconscious of the only witness to the event.

Author Kate Morton makes good use of poetic illusions and warped time as she slowly peels back the layers of a family history with Laurel Nicolson (a renowned actress), Vivien Jenkins (a lovely and wealthy socialite), and Dorothy Nicholson (the mother of Laurel, her sisters and her brother) at its center.   The tale switches back and forth between time periods, mostly World War II and 2011.   Although the reader is provided with ample notice of the time switches, there exists a vague sense of unease and confusion conveyed by Laurel and her sisters.

Perhaps the fact that this is a story with action locales in the English countryside and sea-shore, London, as well as a flashback to Australia adds to the sense of wondering and aimlessness felt by this reviewer.   The descriptions of the devastation wrought by the London bombings are no doubt accurate and they are terrifying.   Also, there were times when a look back at prior chapters was necessary to clarify character names and roles.   This mild discomfort was well worth enduring for the remarkable payoff Ms. Morton reveals at the conclusion of her saga.

Well recommended.

Far North: A Magnus Jonson Mystery by Michael Ridpath (Minotaur Books, $25.99, 384 pages)

Get ready for a strange adventure when you read Far North.   By strange I mean out of the ordinary in terms of setting and vocabulary.   The setting is Iceland and the time is post-2007 economic crash that basically ruined the economy of the country.   While the rampant cheating and leveraging engaged in by business and banking moguls all over the world caused great harm, it was devastating for this cold and wind-swept country of less than half a million residents.

Basically, the tale is an English style detective story displaced to the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.   As such the reader is treated to a nice travelogue with multi-generational murders and Nordic style myths and sagas.   Time switches among several periods beginning with August 1934 and progresses in odd intervals toward the fall of 2009.   Main character/protagonist Magnus Jonson is a detective of Icelandic background whose home is Boston, Massachusetts.   Magnus is hiding from gangsters he has fingered in Boston as he attends the police academy in Iceland.

Conveniently, Magnus is the sort of detective that can’t help detecting, even when the case may not be his own assignment.   Along the way he coordinates with other detectives to make sense of revelations he has made.   Childhood traumas have a way of insidiously seeping into the actions of damaged adults.   That lesson is hammered home throughout the gripping tale.

Note to potential readers:  The complex naming system for people in Iceland may be confusing and the pronunciation of geographic names may be daunting.   Don’t let that get between you and an exhilarating chase to the end.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publishers.

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A review of The Secret Keeper: A Novel by Kate Morton, and more.

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Busy Being Fabulous: A Review of Greetings from Somewhere Else

There are films, fun films, that have a just-right attitude and tone (Four Weddings and a Funeral comes to mind), so that the time spent watching just seems to fly by.   This is the written equivalent of that type of film, a 415-page novel that reads fast and reads fun.   It’s also loaded with enough realistic people – not faux characters – that the reader wants to know the most important thing…   What happens next?

Some would probably view this as either a “woman’s book” or chick lit.   Maybe it is a Bridget Jones-style book, although I honestly wouldn’t know; the main character’s perspective never gets in the way of the all too human story.   The story is about Lainey Byrne, a Type A personality, who works like mad in a P.R. firm in Australia, often literally placing her chef boyfriend on the back burner.   A death in the family and a medical crisis make it imperative that she meet the terms of a late aunt’s will (so that the property formerly owned by the aunt can be sold).   This will require that a member of Lainey’s family live in and manage a broken-down B&B outside of Belfast, Ireland.   Lainey, who desperately needs to control everything and everyone in the world, is left with the assignment.

This is not Under the Tuscan Sun.   Instead it’s A Year Outside of Belfast in an Almost Bankrupt Bed and Breakfast!   A year in which Lainey learns valuable lessons about stepping back now and then and letting events run their course; about understanding that other people have their own instincts and sense of timing; about the fact that true love is not fantasy.

Very, very well done!

Thanks to Kathleen at Random House/Ballantine and Abby at Library Thing for supplying the review copy!

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