Friday, November 02, 2007

Turning book reviewer

I've added book reviews recently to my ever growing plethora of stuff I have to write but can't find the time and energy to do. Bmmmm. This is my first book review in years, appearing in The Star last week. Book is courtesy of Eric Forbes, who didn't want to read chick lit so he passed it to me:)

Don’t judge by its cover

A perennial chick lit reader is pleasantly surprised when she picks up what seems like her usual fare only to discover a novel that serves up something lost and unexpected.


By Cecelia Ahern

Publisher: HarperCollins, 496 pages

(ISBN: 978-0007258871)

I MUST confess I didn’t much like Cecelia Ahern’s explosive debut novel, PS, I Love You. It was a case of faulty advertising. You see, the cover had me convinced it was light-hearted chick lit in the vein of Shopaholic-meets-writing pad-because-I-can’t-afford-a-computer, which is what I usually like.

But the novel’s “damsel in extreme distress” protagonist turned out to be weepy, self-indulgent and totally dependent on her late husband’s every whim. Chick lit protagonists are supposed to be confident, liberated and spunky! And so, with a sigh, I gave up reading Ahern.

When a friend handed me There’s No Place Like Here from Ireland’s most famous First Daughter, I cringed, of course, expecting to meet women who stare vacantly into space, waiting for Prince Charming to bail out their plumbing.

But Sandy Shortt, the 1.8m tall protagonist of Ahern’s newest story, (paperback released in June) is a refreshingly no-nonsense, occasionally wisecracking ex-cop who now runs a missing persons agency. (She’s Shortt but she’s tall, geddit?)

Because of her height, Sandy always felt ostracised as a child. In addition, she has a predilection for losing things. An odd sock here and there. A diary. A ratty teddy bear. Even her 10-year-old neighbour, Jenny-May Butler, who under angelic curls turns out to be the class bully.

There’s No Place Like Here plays on the theme that your missing things have to go someplace. Why do socks vanish in the washing machine? Why is it that when you’re sure you’ve put your car keys in your bag, you simply can’t find them? And why is it people sometimes go missing and never turn up even though there is no evidence of foul play?

Sandy is determined to find the answers. She has spent her entire childhood trying to find the answers, turning her parents’ house inside out each time she lost an item, to the extent they send her for psychological counselling at age 14 with dishy shrink Gregory.

Then one day, on the trail of a missing person, the adult Sandy finds herself wandering down an unknown path in a forest and goes missing herself.

This is when, instead of conforming to expectations set up by the chick lit cover, the book moves firmly into Mitch Albom-The-Five-People-You-Meet-in-Heaven territory. Which is not a bad thing.

In the forest, Sandy stumbles onto a group of people who have been missing since the days of the Beatles (they are now appropriately aged). And they lead her to a place called Here, one village among many, all made up of thousands of missing people from all over the world.

“Here” is a place where everything goes when it’s missing – old socks, airport luggage, cell phones, trays of doughnuts, loose change. In Here, Sandy finds almost every Irish missing person she has been looking for her entire life. Save the one she is currently looking for.

If you’re looking for romance in There’s No Place Like Here, be prepared to be disappointed. There’s very little of it. Any relationship is bittersweet, more in the vein of enduring-the-test-of-time than the loin-engaging, heart-pounding ones of traditional chick lit.

Sandy is a strange heroine with many layers. She’s selfish with her relationships and her family, and yet, she’s dedicated to helping the families of the missing people she has vowed to find. She hates children, and yet is devoted to finding them when they are gone. She’s guarded, occasionally rude, and suspicious of people who are trying to be kind.

With unexpected turns and revelations of the human condition every step of the way, I found myself mesmerised with the pseudo-fantastical There’s No Place like Here. Ahern has done her missing persons’ research well, blending wishful fantasy with cold-blooded reality in skilful, very readable prose.

If you want something unexpected, this will be your cup of tea. Just don’t be fooled by the cover design.

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