Galina Petrovna’s Three-Legged Dog Story, by Andrea Bennett

Publisher: The Borough Press |  Published 12th February 2015  |  Edition: Hardback (own copy)

Galina Petrovna's Three Legged Dog story

Russian comic caper and yes, that’s right, a three-legged dog.

You’d be forgiven for thinking, ‘how on earth can a story set in a Russian village that time forgot (with elderly people clad in head scarves and unattractive pop socks) be remotely entertaining?’

Well, I’m sorry. I can’t shed any light on it either.

It’s just a magical read and reminds me of an alternative version of ‘Allo ‘Allo. There are some thoroughly hammed-up shenanigans to whip up quite a storm, and I absolutely loved it.

Let’s get some quick intro’s out of the way. The stars of this comic caper are:

  • THE star is undoubtedly: BORODA, a 3 legged dog (with a beard). Loves scraps of fat and the occasional scratch under the chin.
  • GALINA PETROVNA, a stereotypical Babushka and NOT the owner of Boroda (despite allowing the dog to live in her apartment). The widow appears hardened by life and shows little emotion, except when she offers scraps of fat to Boroda.
  • VASILY SEMYONOVICH VOLUBCHIK (or Vasya to his friends). An elderly resident and neighbour and chairman of the Azov House of Culture Elderly Club. Vasya has at least five of his own teeth and would also like a scratch under the chin, as he holds a torch for the old Widow.
  • MITYA the exterminator. A hateful character if ever there was one.
  • With special mention to the Kommandant Krapivin of the SIZO, who is convinced he’s running a Butlins style holiday camp for hardened prisoners (strangely, he was my favourite).

THE STORY:

Between the consumption of vast quantities of gherkins, vodka, and tea served with jam, the residents of Azov are set for an unexpected turn of events. And it all surrounds a scruffy dog called Boroda.

The little canine might only have three legs but she’s a perfect companion for Galina Petrovna, who has been widowed from Pasha for some while now.

There’s not much to do in Azov, except visit the entertainment factory that is: ‘The House of Culture Elderly Club’. You just can’t contain your excitement, as they talk about crop infestations, play chess and sometimes they watch the old folk throw punches when things get heated over a triviality. A typical member resembles this lady:

The oldest old woman stood up with a clearly audible creak, her mosaic face cracking open to produce a voice that rumbled up from her belly, or perhaps her boots, which were fashioned from the same stuff as her face.

Only Mitya seems to have achieved any delight in his life. He’s a vindictive animal exterminator who you will loathe from the first breath he draws on the page. When he encounters little Boroda waiting for Galina outside the House of Culture, he has a big grin on his face.

You get the impression that Mitya just can’t bear to see anyone, or anything, happy. He is spiteful and vile – however, throughout the story we are given an insight as to why he’s so cruel, and his character evolves considerably.

One of the children playing outside raises the alarm, but it’s too late, Boroda is missing…

(…SHARP INTAKE OF BREATH…)

From then on, each turn of the page allows the perfect caper to unfold. With a cast that is well past its expiry date, it’s lends itself to all manner of situation comedy moments.

There’s a motor bike chase, a sickle-brandishing crazy mother, MANY officials to bribe, underground connections to be made, while all the time there’s a canine rescue to organise. But it’s not all fun and games. As the plot develops, plenty of home truths crawl out from their deepest, darkest burrows concerning Galina’s husband, the chairman with a crush, and there’s just a whole heap of trouble for the exterminator man.

Babushka

“Hey you. Yes you. Go buy this book. We’re pretty funny, yes?”

You can’t help but connect with every single character and the oddities that accompany them. Without creating an entirely depressive atmosphere, Andrea Bennett describes their grim, simple lives and how they’ve each settled for whatever little happiness they possess at that moment in time. We learn more about their friendships, their loves (or lack of) and their bizarre living habits.

There’s some cracking dialogue exchanged between them, which makes their personalities sing – by the time I was a quarter of the way through I found I’d developed a comfortable Russian accent whilst reading, albeit a bad one!

But all the while my heart was in the wringer, forever wondering whether the witless rescuers would find Boroda and bring her home…the dry humour in this often surprising tale held my attention until I found out.

Best devoured as a chunk, rather than several nibbles (the book, not the gherkins).

Rating: 4.5/5

FYI: It should come as no surprise that there are quite a few Russian words, place names and hard to pronounce surnames in the story, but there’s a small glossary at the back of the book. And no, I didn’t find it until I’d finished. Should have gone to Specsavers…


You can follow the author on Twitter: @andreawiderword |  Publisher: @BoroughPress

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Church of Marvels, by Leslie Parry

Publisher: John Murray Press / Two Roads | Published: 4th June 2015 | Edition: Kindle via NetGalley

Firstly, let’s be clear about something: I loved EVERYTHING about this book. The writing, the story, the character names and THAT cover – just how perfect can one book be?

Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry.jpg

Simply marvellous.

Inside this gorgeous cover spins an atmospheric world where the writing is sublime. As I strolled with wide-eyes throughout this book I could almost hear the echoing clop of hooves, whiff the lingering grime in the air and sense the occasional moan from an opium den.

It’s a vivid tale that will test the strongest resolve and prod the hardest of hearts.

And with phrases like this you can’t go wrong:

“Everything smelled like the damp of a ship, wet fur and raw potato.”

Apologies for the lengthy review – this book is very worthy of it!:

Twins, Belle and Odile, are the first threads woven into this late 19th century tapestry. The seventeen year old sisters who, despite their almost identical looks and crescent-shaped birth marks, perform individually the Church of Marvels, a theatre in Coney Island set up by her mother, Friendship Willingbird Church.

Belle is an expert contortionist and sword swallower – and Odile, who has suffered with a disfigured spine since birth, yet not at any real disadvantage, spins furiously on a wheel, as a muse in a daring knife throwing act. Other companions have grown up with the sisters and include a four legged girl and a half-girl/half-boy, who also perform in the show. They each have an understanding of each other, until tragedy strikes…

After a fire razes the Church of Marvels to the ground and their mother is found to have perished among the dead, Odile and the others find themselves appearing in a side show directed by their new director, the mocking Mr Guilfoyle.

Soon Belle disappears, but has written a letter to her sister to tell her that it is Odile’s that has been the stronger one. At first Odile believes her sister to be grief stricken after their mother’s passing, yet she can’t stop the gnawing feeling in the pit of her stomach that something is amiss, and sets to work to try and find her twin. The only clue she has to her whereabouts is a vague address on the top of the letter, which leads her to an odd Apothecary shop. When everyone denies seeing Belle, Odile is more determined than ever to find her.

Yet another thread is introduced into the story when young Sylvan Threadgill makes a startling discovery whilst cleaning out the privies during his night shift. As a ‘night-soiler’ he gets to keep anything of value he finds, but that evening, Sylvan gets the shock of his life when he digs a limp baby girl out of the filth. Sylvan’s boss, Mr Everjohn, said he should put the child back where he found it, as if it were worthless. But the young man, an orphan himself, couldn’t discard the child and embarks on a journey to try and find where the baby came from, or at least ensure she has a good home.

The last stitch to close the story is Alphine. After earning her money in prostitution, she had settled down with an Italian undertaker. And yet she finds herself being transported to an institution with a throng of women who are suffering dreadfully. With no memory, Alphine tries to piece together the jigsaw of how she came to arrive at the Asylum.

She begs a nurse not to strip and bathe her in the cold water in exchange for her gold wedding band; Alphine conceals a secret, which she must keep hidden for fear of receiving worse even treatment (which would seem impossible after all she’s been through already). It is in the Asylum where she met Orchard Broom, a mysterious inmate, who can only be identified by a tattoo bearing a name she received on her arrival. Soon, when the determined mute girl mysteriously coughs up a pair of scissors, she and Alphine hatch a daring plan of escape to leave the insanity and cruelty behind them.

Snippets of Alphine’s memory returns in fleeting glimpses until the reasons for her confinement are finally revealed – and how dreadful it is, you think you’re safe and loved and how quickly things can change… Now the two of them must confront their past to enable them to mould their futures.

Like the points on a compass the paths of Belle, Odile, Alphine, Sylvan and his miraculous discovery of an abandoned child are magnetised in the same direction, until they all arrive at the same point in the story – and it’s so beautifully done.

You think with a title like the Church of Marvels that this will be a tale of curiosity for amusement. But it’s filled with grit, hardship and cruelty. Yet astonishingly, skulking in the shadows of unseemly pits of despair there is also a glimmer of hope.

Like Sylvan Threadgill, if you dig deep you will find it.

Rating: A no-messing, solid 5/5

(My thanks to the publisher for the copy I received via NetGalley.)


You can follow the author on Twitter: @leslie_parry

 

Not Forgetting the Whale, by John Ironmonger

Publisher: W & N | Publication date: 12th February 2015 | Edition: Hardback (own copy)

Firstly, a taster of the sort of comment you will enjoy between the pages…

…they went to bed perfectly healthy and woke up dead…

Not Forgetting the Whale cover

Not Forgetting the Whale – gorgeous artwork, excellent writing.

Not Forgetting the Whale is the third John Ironmonger book I have read. As the bar had already been set high with the others (The Coincidence Authority & The Notable Brain of Maximillian Ponder) each deserving 5 stars, this had a lot to live up to.

From the moment I started reading I knew this would not disappoint. There’s a real talent to capturing the elements of human nature to perfection and creating what I can only describe as a modern day fable of sorts, and this writer has oodles of it.

In this story Joe Haak is an analyst in the city. He developed a computer program that could ‘predict’ the effects of global events on the stock market. However, when the machine predicted other events that could affect human civilisation as we know it, with a little help from a whale the analyst finds himself in the Cornish village of St Piran (or rather the villagers discover Joe washed up on the beach in just his birthday suit, much to their surprise!).

In their own unique ways, the villagers welcome this odd visitor from the city until he slowly becomes part of their close-knit community.

After a global pandemic breaks out, various trials come along to test St Piran’s resolve and Joe has to face the reality of the machine’s prediction – will people rally together, or will everyone have to fend for themselves? More importantly, how will Joe fair in these trying times and can he fulfil a promise he made years earlier?

The whale on the cover of this enchanting book makes significant appearances throughout the story, alongside John Ironmonger’s unique humour and dialogue that once again weaves its magical thread throughout.

This is a wonderful book that I’d recommend to anyone who enjoys a heart-warming tale, where you can discover the often hidden traits of ordinary people without anyone wagging a finger in your face from the moral high-ground.

I LOVE this writer’s work.

Rating: Superb.  5/5


You can follow the author on Twitter @jwironmonger

 

The Notable Brain of Maximilian Ponder, by John Ironmonger

Publisher: W & N | Publication date: 3rd January 2013 | Edition: Paperback (own copy)

Maximilian Ponder is lying face up, dead, on the dining table in his own front room…

The Notable Brain of Maximillian Ponder.jpg

A thoroughly quirky and original read.

A thoroughly unusual tale about a man who chose to lock himself away in an attempt to record the existing contents of his brain for future scientific analysis.

It’s an especially clever and heart-warming book. I really can’t explain to you HOW the writer made this story work, it just does – and I loved it!

To briefly give you an idea of the story, during a project that was supposed to last just three years, the young Maximillian Ponder has decided to isolate himself from the outside world to recall and write down every memory he’s had, every person he’s met, food he’s eaten, places he’s visited, conversations he recalls – well, you get the idea!

Don’t be fooled that this is some boring, straightforward run-of-the-mill diary – Maximillian Ponder’s random ‘ponderings’ are anything but boring.

It’s an outpour of everything the man has ever experienced, or to be precise, what he remembers. Travelling through the pages of the book with Max and his good friend, Adam Last, you sense his past, present and future. The timeline flits back and forth to allow the story to be told by both Max, via his journal, and Adam, who’s telling the story. Yet there’s an odd order to it all. The writer really knows how to draw you into this ‘pondering’ world he’s created.

I’m not going to say anymore about the plot, as the whole experience will be YOU reading Max’s ramblings. It’s funny, even though it’s heart breaking in places, and it’s thought provoking without losing its ‘entertainment value’. Some upsetting moments are tackled by John Ironmonger’s brilliantly quirky writing style. For this reason alone he’s quickly becoming a favourite author of mine (see The Coincidence Authority, also fabulous)

Well then, if you like something different without it being totally bizarre then try this. I’m very glad I did.

Rating: 5/5


You can follow the author on Twitter: @jwironmonger