Four Recent Review Books: Butler, Hunt, Paralkar and Vestre

Four February–April releases: A quiet novel about the clash of religion and reason; a birdwatching odyssey in London; a folktale-inspired story of the undead descending on an Indian medical clinic; and a layman’s introduction to fetal development – you can’t say I don’t read a wide variety of books! See if any of these tempt you.


Little Faith by Nickolas Butler

Butler follows in Kent Haruf’s footsteps with this quiet story of ordinary Midwesterners facing a series of small crises. Lyle Hovde works at a local Wisconsin orchard but is more interested in spending time with Isaac, his five-year-old grandson. Lyle has been an atheist since he and Peg lost a child in infancy, making it all the more ironic that their adopted daughter, Shiloh, has recently turned extremely religious. She attends a large non-denominational church that meets in an old movie theatre and is engaged to Pastor Steven*, whose hardline opinions are at odds with his hipster persona.

Steven and Shiloh believe Isaac has a healing gift – perhaps he can even help Lyle’s old pal, Hoot, who’s just been diagnosed with advanced cancer? The main story line reminded me most of Emily Fridlund’s History of Wolves (health and superstition collide) and Carolyn Parkhurst’s Harmony (the dangers of a charismatic leader). It’s all well and good to have faith in supernatural healing, but not if it means rejecting traditional medicine.

This is the epitome of a slow burner, though: things don’t really heat up until the final 35 pages, and there were a few chapters that could have been cut altogether. The female characters struck me as underdeveloped, but I did have a genuine warm feeling for Lyle. There are some memorable scenes, like Lyle’s heroic effort to save the orchard from an ice storm – a symbolic act that’s more about his desperation to save his grandson from toxic religion. But mostly this is a book to appreciate for the slow, predictable rhythms of a small-town life lived by the seasons.

[*So funny because that’s my brother-in-law’s name! I’ve also visited a Maryland church that meets in a former movie theatre. I was a part of somewhat extreme churches and youth groups in my growing-up years, but luckily nowhere that would have advocated foregoing traditional medicine in favor of faith healing. There were a few false notes here that told me Butler was writing about a world he wasn’t familiar with.]

A favorite passage:

“‘Silent Night’ in a darkened country chapel was, to Lyle, more powerful than any atomic bomb. He was incapable of singing it without feeling his eyes go misty, without feeling that his voice was but one link in a chain of voices connected over the generations and centuries, that line we sometimes call family. Or memory itself.”

With thanks to Faber & Faber for the free copy for review.


The Parakeeting of London: An Adventure in Gonzo Ornithology by Nick Hunt

Rose-ringed parakeets were first recorded in London in the 1890s, but only in the last couple of decades have they started to seem ubiquitous. I remember seeing them clustered in treetops and flying overhead in various Surrey, Kent and Berkshire suburbs we’ve lived in. They’re even more noticeable in London’s parks and cemeteries. “When did they become as established as beards and artisan coffee?” Nick Hunt wonders about his home in Hackney. He and photographer Tim Mitchell set out to canvass public opinion about London’s parakeets and look into conspiracy theories about how they escaped (Henry VIII and Jimi Hendrix are rumored to have released them; the set of The African Queen is another purported origin) and became so successful an invasive species.

A surprising cross section of the population is aware of the birds, and opinionated about them. Language of “immigrants” versus “natives” comes up frequently in the interviews, providing an uncomfortable parallel to xenophobic reactions towards human movement – “people had a tendency to conflate the avian with the human, turning the ornithological into the political. Invading, colonizing, taking over.” This is a pleasant little book any Londoner or British birdwatcher in general would appreciate.

With thanks to Paradise Road for the free copy for review.


Night Theatre by Vikram Paralkar

This short novel has an irresistible (cover and) setup: late one evening a surgeon in a rural Indian clinic gets a visit from a family of three: a teacher, his pregnant wife and their eight-year-old son. But there’s something different about this trio: they’re dead. They each bear hideous stab wounds from being set upon by bandits while walking home late from a fair. In the afterlife, an angel reluctantly granted them a second chance at life. If the surgeon can repair their gashes before daybreak, and as long as they stay within the village boundaries, their bodies will be revivified at dawn.

Paralkar draws on dreams, folktales and superstition, and the descriptions of medical procedures are vivid, as you would expect given the author’s work as a research physician at the University of Pennsylvania. The double meaning of the word “theatre” in the title encompasses the operating theatre and the dramatic spectacle that is taking place in this clinic. But somehow I never got invested in any of these characters and what might happen to them; the précis is more exciting than the narrative as a whole.

A favorite passage:

“Apart from the whispering of the dead in the corridor, the silence was almost deliberate – as if the crickets had been bribed and the dogs strangled. The village at the base of the hillock was perfectly still, its houses like polyps erupting from the soil. The rising moon had dusted them all with white talc. They appeared to have receded in the hours after sunset, abandoning the clinic to its unnatural deeds.”

With thanks to Serpent’s Tail for the free copy for review.


The Making of You: A Journey from Cell to Human by Katharina Vestre

A sprightly layman’s guide to genetics and embryology, written by Doctoral Research Fellow at the University of Oslo Department of Biosciences. Addressed in the second person, as the title suggests, the book traces your development from the sperm Leeuwenhoek studied under a microscope up to labor and delivery. Vestre looks at all the major organs and the five senses and discusses what can go wrong along with the normal quirks of the body.

I learned all kinds of bizarre facts. For instance, did you know that sperm have a sense of smell? And that until the 1960s pregnancy tests involved the death of a mouse or rabbit? Who knew that babies can remember flavors and sounds experienced in utero?

Vestre compares human development with other creatures’, including fruit flies (with whom we share half of our DNA), fish and alligators (which have various ways of determining gender), and other primates (why is it that they stay covered in fur and we don’t?). The charming style is aimed at the curious reader; I rarely felt that things were being dumbed down. Most chapters open with a fetal illustration by the author’s sister. I’m passing this on to a pregnant friend who will enjoy marveling at everything that’s happening inside her.

A representative passage:

“This may not sound terribly impressive; I promised you dramatic changes, and all that’s happened is that a round plate has become a triple-decker cell sandwich. But you’re already infinitely more interesting than the raspberry you were a short while ago. These cells are no longer confused, needy newcomers with no idea where they are or what they’re supposed to do. They have completed a rough division of labour. The cells on the top layer will form, among other things, skin, hair, nails, eye lenses, nerves and your brain. From the bottom layer you’ll get intestines, liver, trachea and lungs. And the middle layer will become your bones, muscles, heart and blood vessels.”

With thanks to Wellcome Collection/Profile Books for the free copy for review.


Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?

22 responses

  1. carolyn anthony | Reply

    I didn’t know about the parakeets. I’d love to see them.

    Sent from my iPhone


    Liked by 1 person

  2. We’ve done surprisingly well with Nickolas Butler, so even if his new book is a bit on the slow side, I expect we’ll sell it! Quite like the narrative voice in The Making of You, as well – so hard to nail conversational-without-condescending.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Props also to the translator from the Norwegian, Matt Baguley.


  3. I found Shotgun Lovesongs a bit meh, so I might skip the newest Butler if it’s so slow. I had a look at Night Theatre in the bookshop recently – similarly, I loved the premise, but my sense from the first page or so was that the narrative voice was a bit distancing. Judging from your review, I think I’ll give that a miss as well. Thanks for narrowing down my TBR list!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Always glad to be of service in that way 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I loved Shotgun Lovesongs but The Hearts of Men not so much so I was wary of Little Faith but you’ve made me feel more optimistic about it.

    I don’t feel as if I’ve been to London these days unless I’ve seen, or more often heard, a parakeet. I’ve spotted them in many of the continental European cities I’ve visited over the past five or so years.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’d only read Butler’s short story collection before; I liked this more than the stories, and would consider reading either or both of his previous novels.

      We occasionally got parakeets in the Reading area but I don’t think they’ve made it as far out as Newbury.


    2. Yes, I really, really enjoyed Shotgun Lovesongs. Agree with you! I read Little Faith and felt it was okay – meandered a whole lot and it doesn’t truly pick up until the very end, but then that ending is so abrupt it kept this one at a 3-star for me. I haven’t read The Hearts of Men yet though!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I liked the writing enough to bump it up that tiny bit. I’d be interested to discuss the ending with someone — hard to avoid spoilers here, though!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Approach with care then for me! Thanks for the warning. Shotgun Lovesongs is a difficult act to follow.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m always charmed by the parakeets who are entirely comfortable living in Lewisham near my son’s house, so Parakeeting looks worth a go. I’m also a Kent Haruf fan, so Little Faith might go on the list, despite your underwhelming review.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Funnily enough, I’ve not read Haruf (yet), but based on what I know of his work this is similar in terms of tone, characters and setting. I have two Haruf novels on the shelf; what am I waiting for?!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I don’t know. I find them very satisfying, very grounded in small town life.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ve yet to read Butler, but want to – I have Shotgun Lovesongs, so will start with that, although having discovered Kent Haruf last year, if Butler is a bit like him – I’ll love it. I’d probably happily try all four or these books actually, but Butler would be first.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I could see you enjoying any or all of these. I’ll have to try Haruf soon — I own Plainsong and Eventide.


  7. Bledwina Blighty Pudfish | Reply

    I loved Haruf’s Our Souls At Night. But the parrot book appeals the most.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Well you know which one has gone straight onto my wishlist! What a great selection, though! We have parakeets in our local park and I have been known to pause an official running club run I’ve been leading in order to show them to people!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I had no idea you got them all the way up in Birmingham!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The only ones I know of are the small breeding flock in our local park. They’ve been there years!

        Liked by 1 person

  9. The Making of You appeals to me the most. I mean, it really is amazing that we can grow humans inside of us! It’s all stuff I probably studied at university, but that was a million years ago…

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I feel like I’ve heard about the parakeets in London several times recently and I’m fascinated by the fact that they’ve established a wild population there! I’d love to learn more about them and it sounds as though the book you mention deals with some more important themes as well.

    I’m also interested in The Making of You. I think I’d already know some of the information, but not all of it, and the writing seems engaging.

    Liked by 1 person

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