The Wild Girl

08/14/2014 at 11:33 AM (Australian Literature, Books, Romance) (, , , , , )

the-wild-girl

Kate Forsyth intrigued me once with her spellbinding retelling of Rapunzel in Bitter Greens. When I saw she authored The Wild Girl, I did not hesitate. This time, she explores the story of Dortchen Wild who is credited as having told many of the fairy tales belonging to the collection of the Brothers Grimm.

Set against the backdrop of the German kingdom of Hessen-Kassel in the early nineteenth century, we learn about boy next door Dortchen fell in love with the first time she saw him, her best friend’s brother, the poor but handsome scholar Wilhelm Grimm, who has returned from Marburg. War interferes in their newly budding romance because Napoleon’s army conquers their kingdom, takes over the palace of the Kurfürst and begins an oppressive regime setting French decrees. So the Grimm brothers embark on a mission to preserve the folk tales of their heritage and publish them in a book.

Dortchen, having grown up in the care of Old Marie, knows several beautiful old stories. These include Hansel and Gretel, The Frog King, All Kinds of Fur and Six Swans. She has to tell them to Wilhelm in secret as her tyrannical father opposes her plans to get married to Wilhelm and as the story progresses we learn it is for the darkest of reasons. Although their ardour deepens, Dortchen has to guard a dark secret but Wilhelm remains mostly oblivious even when she tells him the truth in the guise of a story. For Dortchen, as time passes and all of her sisters find husbands, marriage to Wilhelm seems an unlikely outcome.

Does this teller of fairy tales who has her heart trampled and spirit wounded get her happy ending? You’ll have to read The Wild Girl to find out. This may be a darker forbidden love story but both the protagonists have better fates than Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

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The Light Between Oceans

08/08/2014 at 8:15 AM (Australian Literature, Books, Historical) (, , , , )

The Light Between Oceans was a heartbreaking story about the consequences of a momentous decision made in the throes of grief and haste. Tom Sherbourne is a lighthouse keeper living on  Janus, a remote island off the West Coast of Australia together with his wife Isabel. He harbours Lucy, a baby who washed up on to the shores of the island in a boat, because of guilt over his wife’s miscarriage. However when a chance encounter with the mother of the child preys on his conscience, he can no longer keep silent. When his wife learns of his betrayal, they drift apart while Lucy tries to acclimatise herself to the stranger who keeps calling her Grace and makes a claim that tears the fabric of existence she has hitherto known.

The decision the couple makes to pass the child off as their own has heartbreaking results. Lies quickly unravel, unflattering truths come to light and a lot of pain and hurt is felt. In the middle of this, Lucy navigates trying to find her true identity while locked in a battle of two mothers vying for her custody, one with a legal claim who had never seen her since she was a baby and one with no legal claim but one who raised her in her formative years. M.L. Stedman’s poignant, riveting novel received several literary accolades and awards and since then Hollywood rights have been acquired for film production by Dreamworks.

Three characters stood out to me in this novel because of the internal conflicts each faced and weathered. Isabel struggles to cope with the loss of her baby but the arrival of Lucy changes her life but by the time she is willing to admit the truth, it is too late to not hurt anyone which nearly made a villain out of her to me due to her selfish desires. Meanwhile Tom is guilt-ridden because he feels survivor’s guilt after escaping physically unscathed from the war. This is why he goes against his straight-laced ethics when he decides to omit details in his logbook to keep Isabel happy. Hannah is sympathetic as the mother who thought her child was literally dead but has to fight an uphill battle to convince Lucy of the truth of the situation. The Light Between Oceans plot is complex as it encompasses a moral dilemma and it is possible to be empathetic to both the female leads but as the story unfolds, it shows justice for one party can lead to tragic loss for the other party. The conclusion however just might surprise you.

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Burial Rites

06/26/2014 at 12:34 PM (Australian Literature, Books) (, , , , , )

I just finished reading Burial Rites by Hannah Kent for my book club at work. It is a historical novel set in 1830s Iceland based on the factual story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman who was publicly executed there. She was accused of murdering two men, including Natan Ketilsson for whom she worked as a servant. Björn Blöndal, the district commissioner, clearly the villain, is unsympathetic toward Agnes Magnúsdóttir, because she is clever, intelligent and literate but he does indulge in her request for a new spiritual advisor of her choosing. This is in spite of the chosen reverend’s lack of experience in providing spiritual nourishment for criminals. With a year left to live, Agnes is sent to reside at the farm of Margrét and Jón and their two daughters in Kornsa. From then on, details of her life prior to the murder of Natan is narrated through discussions with her priest. The people who mistrust her when they are forced to take her in find it difficult to let her go when they finally hear her side of the story.

The Icelandic naming system can be confusing on introduction and while tempting to give up, it is not as bad as the Russian names in Anna Karenina. If you understand Agnes Magnúsdóttir stands for Agnes, Magnus’s daughter and Natan Ketilsson stands for Natan, Ketil’s son and decipher in that manner, you will manage okay. Although the first two chapters were slow going, the pace suddenly picked up and I finished the book in about three days by reading during my commute to work. For myself, it started to become interesting when Agnes first met Margrét. The evocative prose is simple enough without being verbose for all readers to engage with it but I felt something in it was a bit too contrived. This may be due to the author trying to conform her novel with plausibility as lots of attention is given to snippets of actual historical details. The book is very typical of the type of novel to win a literary award and so it has –  it won the Writing Australia prize for best unpublished manuscript which led to obtaining an agent and mentorship of Geraldine Brooks. So as a reader, I only recommend this if you like historical novels in the vein of literary fiction.

For those not interested in reading, Picador Press stated in their blog, Jennifer Lawrence signed up to star in a film adaptation of Hannah Kent’s novel. This is her first novel completed towards her PhD and a phenomenal achievement as she is only 28 years old. In the Sydney Review of Books, Ben Etherington claims Nielsen Company’s BookScan has revealed Burial Rites sold over 50,000 copies in Australia since May 2013, at a RRP of $32.99. 

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Shantaram

03/09/2012 at 11:23 AM (Adventure, Australian Literature, Books, Crime, Inspired) (, , , )

Well, I know I was out of commission for a while but when you pursue a full-time working life on weekdays and use weekends for socialising like me, time just flies. I did make time for reading a few books though and as I have a glorious long weekend ahead (thank goodness for Labour Day in Vic), I can actually be not too tired to write. So I did manage to read the tome that is Shantaram despite my time poorness.

In 1978, the author of Shantaram was sentenced to nineteen years in prison after he was convicted of a string of armed robberies. In July 1980, he escaped from Pentridge Prison miraculously in daylight, becoming one of Australia’s most wanted men for several years. Written by Australian Gregory David Roberts who did actually live in the slums of Bombay, Shantaram is a unique novel that blurs the boundaries of fiction and autobiography.

Shantaram book cover

The real story begins after our protagonist arrives in Mumbai with a false passport under the alias Lindsay Ford. The city impresses Lindsay and his stopover soon turns into an extended and dangerous stay on borrowed time. His chance meeting with an enigmatic taxi driver, Prabaker, who has an infectious smile, whom Lindsay hires as his guide to India shapes the rest of the narrative. They soon become fast friends and Prabaker takes to calling him Lin. Lin is taken to the village of Sunder, where the family of Prabaker resides. Prabaker’s mother decides that Lin’s character is of a happy and peaceful nature and renames him Shantaram (Man of God’s Peace).

So now the story of where the title comes from is over, the pace of the plot increases after Lin gets drunk, is robbed and decides to live in the Mumbai slums and thanks to a first aid kit and a fire ends up as the “slum doctor”. This experience makes him almost local and his fluent mastery of Hindi as well as Marathi, a popular language in Mumbai, opens up new avenues of earning money to him. He also interacts with other foreigners living in Mumbai, involved in all sorts of criminal circles, and then ends up involved in some shady situations, including a stint in theArthur Roadprison. The two foreigners that play a crucial role in Lin’s life is Karla, a Swiss-American woman and Afghan mafia lord Abdel Khader Khan. The former introduces him to true love and the latter inspires him to abandon his path of crime and return to living an honest life.

It’s funny but Lin is a villain that you want to see succeed. The writing in Shantaram is sometimes a bit too cliché and full of sentimentality, possibly to display the tender heart of the guy who looks tough, so if the plot is what interests you and not how the prose is written, I recommend you give it a go.

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Breath

11/22/2011 at 1:33 AM (Australian Literature, Books, Inspired, Nostalgia) (, , , , , , )

In Breath by Tim Winton, we have a gripping tale that is simple and profound in the topics it tackles – adolescence, the need for heart-pounding and risk-filled excitement, a yearning to outshine and outdo the competition and how old wounds affect the passage of life as time passes. This book which is mostly about the friendship between two boys and their daring surfing exploits is melodic in its use of written language and deserved the Miles Franklin Literary Award it won in 2009. As an immigrant Melburnian, surf culture is alien to me but as Winton paints such a vivid verbal picture of that world, and how the ocean could be both enthralling and toxic, Breath is a captivating read.

Book Cover of Tim Winton's Breath

 

The most touching moment was when or coming of age protagonist had to admit that he was ‘ordinary’ after all. You realise it is a melancholy book as the trajectory of events clues you in that this is no flowery ode. Since it’s structured from the start as a reflection on past events, you can’t help but feel for Bruce Pike, the main character and later on his love interest. It did surprise me that the amount of time spent in learning about his present was very miniscule.

Set in Western Australia where surfing beaches abound, Breath gave me enjoyment in reading about the landscape. Sometimes authors overdo it to the point that it becomes a pain to read but Winton avoids relying on description and infuses his tale with enough dialogue and dramatic tension to sustain interest. You need to realise beneath the story surface story evoking nostalgia, there are themes such as addiction, dreams vs reality and growing old integrated into the plot as an undercurrent.

 

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The Hotel Albatross

08/25/2011 at 2:32 AM (Australian Literature, Books) (, , )

The Hotel Albatross was an interesting book with a funny and moving plot. I picked it at random off the library shelf because I liked the conversational tone of the first page. When I choose reading material, the cover or blurb isn’t enough information; I need to know what form the in-text will take. It’s about the running of a hotel and pub in an old Australian outback country town. I used to think running a hotel would be a sexy job in hot demand but the picture this book paints about the hotel management business is bleak. Still the way in which Debra Adelaide, author of The Household Guide to Dying, writes has a certain charm which sustains your interest.

The Hotel Albatross Book Cover

It is mainly about two characters, the Captain and his wife, who find themselves in charge of the hotel after taking on temporary ownership due to mismangement by its previous racist owner. So they find themselves running the place by accident and their endeavours to sell it rarely succeed. The Captain takes care of breaking up fights in the hotel bar, chatting to patrons and dealing with the arising tensions between the indigenous people and the Caucasians. It is told from the perspective of the wife though who takes on the role of housekeeper and when kitchen or bar staff fail to show up for work, either as cook or bartender. She has to sort out decorations for weddings while making sure to satisfy each family member, smooth the ruffled feathers of less than happy staff members and deal with the unhygienic habits of a disgusting customer that brings on a rat infestation. She dreams of escaping to somewhere else where she can avoid the routine.We are treated to eccentric caricatures of the staff and the guests at the hotel and it is this odd cast which makes the story really poignant despite it’s lack of linear structure.

We have the raffle ticket selling waitress Bev, a stubborn and belligerent but good-hearted woman; the ingenious cook who used leftovers to make mouth-watering fare; the pianist doctor who liked playing melancholy pieces and drove away customers; Shirley, who manages the working-class bar and the sultry cocktail waitress Gloria who feels her talents at pouring drinks are of little use at the Galley, the bar mainly patronised by gay men. All this is intertwined with the politics of life in a rural Australian town and how this sometimes clashes with human nature which is always seeking instant gratification. Meanwhile the introduction of bottle shops is causing problems for their country pub. The author provides us with insight into what it is like managing the Hotel Albatross depicting how stressful and tiring it is but at the very end what seems like a very calamitous and heartbreaking misfortune actually also brings the Captain and his tired wife some welcome respite.

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Books I Disliked Reading

08/23/2011 at 5:17 AM (Australian Literature, Books, Movies, Romance, Romantic Comedy) (, , , , , , )

So far, I’ve reviewed books that I have enjoyed and liked but unlike most, I do slog through books that I don’t like as well. If I start reading a book, I need to finish it even if it’s awful. Getting things completed is a trait of mine – I don’t like to leave it hanging. For the same reason, I don’t like to watch a film I’ve decided to watch if all I missed was only the first five minutes. Here’s a few I found very hard to get through with patience.

 One Night at the Call Centre

One Night @ the Call Centre

This is a humorous tale by Chetan Bhagat about the events of a night at a call centre and the intersecting lives of six characters who are coworkers in a special team: Shyam Singh, Priyanka, Esha, Radhika, Vroom and Military Uncle. The first five have to pretend they are in Boston and speak with adopted fake American accents to Americans who have problems with their dishwashers, washing machines and computers using a set of scripted answers. Military Uncle deals with the emails as he does not like to talk much. Each have issues of their own.

Shyam is in love with Priyanka but has no self-confidence to stand up to their cruel, cowardly, manipulative and cunning boss Bakshi who has no issues crediting their work as his own. Vroom used to be a journalist but decided to work at the call centre for money while dealing with the stress of his parents’ separation. Priyanka struggles with her mother’s inability to accept someone less than settled for her and her wanting to get her married to Ganesh, a Microsoft employee raking in a six-figure salary. Esha compromises her morals while looking for a modelling contract as she’s an inch too short which pisses of Vroom who is in love with her. Military Uncle struggles with family conflicts as his son objects to him contacting his grandson while Radhika who patiently obeys all that her nasty mother-in-law demands finds out her husband has been having an affair and resorts to anti-depression pills. They decide to cut a shift at work one day and when they find themselves in peril, a call from God comes to the rescue and advise to heed their inner calling.

The cast is inspired to get rid of their boss and find solutions to their personal problems. This is where the story falls apart at the seams. The book starts out with the visit of a mysterious woman on a train who boards the carriage of the author and then before telling the story demands that her story is the next book he writes who is nowhere to be found after he falls asleep. Then as the book ends with the author asking who she is in the story’s cast, she denies being any of the women leaving an improbable explanation. Maybe it was supposed to be inspiring but that was a very cliché, cheap copout for me. Meanwhile bossy love interest Priyanka was not likeable at all – I wanted her to be run over by a truck.  I cheered for Shyam when he rejected her but as he crawled back to her like the subservient dog he was to her, I felt ashamed for him. It could’ve been made into a good but cheesy Bollywood movie though, which it was, but Hello failed miserably at the box office due to bad film editing.

Sex and the City

Sex and the City book

The TV show is a raging success right at portraying the lives of catty, biting fashionista snobs with man issues in New York, right? At least that’s what the book was about which is why I am confused about the show being so popular. Disclaimer: I don’t watch the TV show myself. From what I write about in my blog, you can see my tastes are different. I hope this book by Candace Bushnell is satire. It has really made me disillusioned with New York. Good thing I’m more of an Europe fan. I’ve seen the movies – the first was just eh and the second was populated with racist stereotypes which ended up with the Middle Eastern women paying homage to Western culture through designer clothing and to these rich, snobby, self-obsessed bitches. Yeah, avoid picking it up if you can unless the adjectives I used above regarding the empty characters without any friends don’t give off warning bells. It’s not told through the eyes of Carrie, by the way, so if you’re a show fan, I would also give the book a miss too as it’s a collection of articles. After reading, I identified with nobody and disliked everyone. The tagline ‘Jane Austen with a Martini’ is a complete and utter lie.

The Man Who Loved Children

The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead

Given the fact it boldly stated that it had an introduction written by Jonathan Franzen, I tried to enjoy it but the dialogue was a real enjoyment killer. I’m not a fan of inflected dialect in books which decides to erase the letter H from the vocabulary. But I persevered and finished the book reading the story about a vile and neglectful self-indulgent father (apparently based on the author’s real father), an incompetent baby machine mother, a long-suffering aunt and several ill-used children. I’m sorry, Christina Stead but reading this was laborious and therefore it gave me no pleasure even if you came up with this tale of tedious family life in the 1940s. But for you at least, Jonathan Franzen likes your work enough to recommend it and so have many others who rediscovered you. So other readers may actually like it even if I don’t. So pick it up if your tolerance for reading dialect in prose is much better than mine.

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Stealing Picasso

08/10/2011 at 4:38 PM (Art, Australian Literature, Books) (, , , , )

Stealing Picasso is an interesting Australian book about the world of artists. While I have some knowledge of the subject history, by no stretch of the imagination can I say that I am a connoisseur. As the title obviously states, it’s about stealing a Picasso painting – from the NGV (National Gallery of Victoria) no less. The theft is carried out by a promising student, Harry, who owes money to a curator who helped him with his first exhibition in cahoots with his disillusioned art teacher, Turton Pym, who has given up on being an art genius and has decided he would mould budding geniuses instead. Things start spiralling out of control as soon as Harry meets the beautiful Miriam, an art buyer who is able to appreciate art unlike the ignorant masses.

He asks her to come see his first gallery exhibition where he has paintings inspired by the artistry of Picasso and the psychology of Freud. She does attend and what’s more, she buys the painting he thinks is deserving of having pride of place in a private collection. Unfortunately, Miriam had lied about her profession so her cheque bounced leaving Harry, a poor art student with a debt he cannot possibly pay. Most of the book revolves around a painting titled The Weeping Woman; a portrait of model Dora Maar, Picasso’s lover. Harry had promised Miriam a reward for buying his art – a secret midnight picnic near the painting with his teacher. So far the only people who had been privy to this experience were Harry and Turton. His teacher is first hostile about sharing The Weeping Woman with a stranger but after meeting Miriam, is entranced with her beauty. She discovers Turton has a secret passion – drawing cartoons of beasts on the motorcycles of a bikie gang lead by Larry Skunk. When she openly admires his handiwork realising the extent of his talent, it takes only a little on her part to persuade him to create a convincing forgery of the Dora Maar portrait and steal the real one. They decide they will steal the painting under the name Australian Cultural Terrorists and makes the news of the theft public through the newspapers when officials are slow to discover a Picasso is missing.

Stealing Picasso book cover

Enter into the scene, Marcel, a professional Michael Jackson impersonator who has had surgery to even look like the singer himself. Unfortunately this is set in the time where MJ was accused of being a child molester and this has a negative impact on Marcel’s chosen career. Oddly, he is a regularly painted subject by no other than Turton Pym. Marcel is forced into prostitution to earn income although he is conflicted. Sometimes he is roughed up by opportunists. By chance, he is introduced to Larry Skunk, who provides him with protection but this introduction ultimately leads to the downfall of all three when Marcel decides he will sell a forgery by Turton Pym to a biker for 30,000 dollars after the “real deal” has already been sold to an unscrupulous individual, Laszlo, for one million. When both owners of the paintings decide to sell it to the same customer to pay their debts, a barrister who reveals the existence of the other painting to the biker, all hell breaks loose.

In the midst of all this, Miriam drops a bombshell on Harry which reveals her motivations for deciding to sell the painting to Laszlo, who had outsmarted them. They find themselves in a quandary. If they reveal the true painting to the public secretly, Laszlo would send thugs after them but if they kept it, they would be hunted by the police. They decide it must be returned for public viewing but unfortunately not without some tragic consequences.

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Fortune Cookie

06/25/2011 at 3:44 AM (Adventure, Australian Literature, Books, Classics, Culture, Educational, Romance) (, , , )

After I read Fishing for Stars (you can read more about it in my previous posts), I had Bryce Courtenay cravings. Books can affect me this way just like cookies and cream flavoured ice cream. So I found myself Fortune Cookie. I was quite lucky because I looked it up on the library catalogue and while it said that it was on the Adult Fiction shelf, I could not find it. So I asked about it from the librarian, who told me it had only arrived a few minutes ago and handed it to me. They had not yet got to replace the returned books.

Basically Fortune Cookie is the story of a fourth-generation Australian born Chinese called Simon Koo who works in advertising but really wants to be an artist. Not a typical Asian stereotype, hmm? In any case his work gets him a promotion so he can try to manage on his own but it’s located in Singapore. Initially he’s not keen as his mum is always on the lookout for matrimonial prospects and that also was where she was born. But everything changes for the better when he meets Mercy B Lord, an orphan Chinese/Japanese girl who was raised by Catholic nuns and who works for an agency called Beatrice Fong. Her name came about when the nuns discovered heron the doorstep and said “Mercy Be, Lord!”

Fortune Cookie Book Cover

He soon falls in love with her and she seems receptive despite his peasant appearance and brick-like build, which can’t be described as handsome in the least. In addition, he has kept the fact that he is wealthy a secret in Singapore to keep his distance from gold-diggers. So he is thrilled when Mercy B Lord accepts and returns his love for her but she keeps disappearing every Thursday. She refuses to talk about it and says if he does bring it up, she will leave him. Unfortunately when his employers threaten him about his liaison with her, he brings up the forbidden subject. Then she packs up and leaves making him finally realise that her regular Thursday assignation is one of a dangerous sort.

To make up for her absence, he makes a painting of her and submits it to a Hong Kong art gallery competition. He captures the very moment that he realised he was in love with her in the painting and adds a symbol particular to a dream had by his ancestors to her gown’s collar. When the painting wins first prize, all is in uproar because Mercy B Lord has lost her anonymity. But Simon manages to see her in secret and she ensures that he doesn’t lose face by her being absent at a gala dinner honouring his painting.

Then Beatrice Fong dies and things start to fall apart again. Simon discovers the habitually drunk American ad man who is his partner and his illiterate Asian housemaid wife are not quite what they appear to be on the surface. His suspicions about his employers are confirmed to be true and he realizes that Mercy B Lord is involved with the drug trafficking trade in Thailand, Burma and also in Singapore, where handling these things were a hanging offence. But together with his friend Danvers and some high-powered people pulling strings, the two lovers are reunited to leave their doubts at rest once the mysteries are uncovered.

You might be wondering why the book is called Fortune Cookie? The story has nothing at all to do with ” a small, delicious cheap round wish cake“. Simon’s name is Kee Koo. He played rugby for his school and one of the school dad’s bet on his team. He won the game when the school had hardly ever won rugby before and the dad made a lot of winnings on the bet. So the winning dad asked Simon “what was his name?”   He said Koo. Then the father asked for his other name and Simon responded with “Kee”. Then the lucky dad said to Simon “You have won me a fortune, Koo Kee”.

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Fishing For Stars

06/19/2011 at 10:54 AM (Australian Literature, Books, Culture, Educational, Inspired, Politics, Romance, War) (, , , , , )

It actually has been a long while since I’ve read a Bryce Courtenay because work and volunteering has kept me on my toes. But on a recent jaunt to the library, I found a sequel to The Persimmon Tree. It’s called Fishing for Stars.

So shipping magnate Nick Duncan finds his life revolving around two women: Anna Til, the exotic but damaged Eurasian obsessed with profit and Marg Hamilton, ex-Navy wife and fanatical protector of nature’s treasures. These characteristics give the two women who are loath to let Nick Duncan belong solely to the other have two vindictive names to call each other: Princess Plunder and Green Bitch. The settings are interesting as it involves the Yakuza in Japan, the military environment of Indonesia, the Pacific Islands and parts of Australia. But this is a story narrated by flashback.

Penguin Fishing for Stars Book Cover

Nick is grieving after losing Anna to breast cancer and is suffering from bad dreams harking back to WWII. Marg decides this is possibly the onset of PTSD and finds him an appropriate specialist. On the advice of his psychologist, Nick decides to put his story on paper; the tale of how he has lived since being a war hero. He writes about the lifelong contest of the two women and how he tried to keep each to their separate worlds until he was forced to take action.

The struggle to save Lake Pedder annoyed me with the weight given to all the politics involved but nevertheless the information was so educational that it was easy to forgive this aspect. The take on Anna Til being a BDSM dominatrix with vaginismus who had a smack habit she couldn’t kick but was cool as a cucumber in making multi-million dollar business deals was a bit much. The habit did not really count as a flaw if it didn’t impact on her ability to be a rational and calculating negotiator. Marg was described in a better and believable way but I think this book focused more on what she did than her as a character.

Still, if you have read The Persimmon Tree, reading the aftermath in Fishing for Stars is not a bad experience even if the history is rehashed for the benefit of those with poor memories. You will always be sure to learn something entirely new in the case of this writer.

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