STAFF BOOK REVIEWS
Barbarian Days : A Surfing Life by William Finnegan
Before reading "Barbarian Days" (William Finnegan's Pulitzer prize-winning surfing memoir), I thought surfers were a bit of a strange bunch. It didn't help that many of the depictions of surfers that have permeated pop culture over the years (whether in films, on television or in fiction) have tended to portray surfers as lovable clowns - as either harmless stoners or long-haired zen monks. This is what makes Finnegan's book such a welcome arrival. Simply put, "Barbarian Days" is the best written portrayal of the sport of surfing and its practitioners since Tim Winton's "Breath". Combining an anthropologist's eye for detail, a novelist's insight into human psychology and plenty of exotic locations, all within a thrilling narrative, Finnegan's memoir is more than simply a celebration of its subject. It is a refreshingly clear-eyed, and yet deeply nuanced account of what seems from a distance like such a simple activity. It turns out surfers are a bit of a strange bunch. Reading this book might just leave you wanting a little more strangeness in your life.
Eileen by Otessa Moshfegh
Eileen is the year's surprise hit; outsider fiction that won the PEN/Hemingway Award then went on to be Booker Prize shortlisted.
It is a dark novel which has been compared to Plath's 'Bell Jar' but is more like the short novels of Shirley Jackson and Jean Rhys. It is easy to see why it divides opinions, it is unsettling and the titular Eileen Dunlop is unlovable. That's the point; I think her extreme self-loathing isn't meant to evoke sympathy, merely curiosity. She herself likes books “about awful things - murder, illness, death” and if you don't then perhaps this one isn't for you.
Inevitably, then, her recollection of the horrible events that forced her to run from an American small town in the 60's makes for a tense and troubling narrative. It isn't a thriller, as such, but builds a sinister precariousness. Thank goodness Moshfegh has a wry, off-kilter tone - Eileen's home life (with her alcoholic, abusive father) and work life (at a boy's prison) would be oppressive reading otherwise.
This unforgettable malcontent is a courageously rendered character and figure of extreme loneliness, but still gave me a laugh.
The Sellout by Paul Beatty
The Sellout is a brilliant black comedy.
About the least funny thing in the US at present is the state of race relations. And this is what Beatty chooses to write a comic novel about, with astounding success. Twisted genius! His black narrator takes a black slave, for starters, and sets about re-segregating his beloved "agrarian ghetto". In modern LA! There's method in his madness, though. He may end up in the Supreme Court, but he is an unstoppable, unforgettable character in the same company as Ignatius T Reilly, Oscar Wao, or Holden Caulfield. Lovably subversive. Should I be laughing at this? You will ask yourself that less often as you read on, because that question becomes secondary to the many others provoked by this feisty shakedown of cultural assumptions. An equally valid reflection on this wonderfully absurd journey may be - what would you do for hand-reared watermelon and weed?
The angry humour itself is unremitting and non-discriminatory. Beatty spares no segment of modern America in this caustic, electric satire.
Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
'Commonwealth' is an entertaining, engrossing domestic drama. It begins with Bert Cousins arriving uninvited(but bearing gin) at Franny Keating's christening, and putting the smooch on Fran's mum, Bev Keating. Oh, the repercussions! We then follow the subsequent interweaving of the lives of all those in these two families over the next few decades.
Every Patchett book (and there aren't enough) is something to savour- she is an elegant stylist with unrivalled insight. She cannot write a boring book. Her stories are strong, in this case the family melodrama is uncompromising and gripping. It's funny and sad. What elevates 'Commonwealth' above Franzenesque hollowness is the authenticity of the blended family characters and the believability and readability the scenes. Patchett isn't one to show off, she puts the reader first. That said, there is a nervy moment when she introduces a famous author into the cast. Where this may have become a glib, self-referential turn in the hands of a less masterful writer, here it becomes the move that makes 'Commonwealth' one of the year's true literary gems. All class.
The Fence by Meredith Jaffe
Ever had a dispute with your next door neighbour? Well The Fence is a salutary lesson in how not to behave. Francesca and her increasing family moves into a leafy green north shore Sydney suburb. She is a corporate high flyer and has strong opinions on all manner of things. Her neighbours Gwen and Eric have lived in the same street for 50 or so years. Gwen is a keen gardener and there has never been a fence between the two properties but for her children’s safety Francesca demands that one be erected. What ensues is a sorry tale about neighbourhood battles, council regulations, and ultimately relationship problems. Francesca’s marriage is teetering and her children are becoming deceitful while Gwen is battling her inner gardening demons she also has to deal with the increasing realisation that Eric is losing his marbles. This is not high literature but there is a build up of tension which renders The Fence a suburban page turner with a twist in the ending and a bit of tragedy to boot.
The Secrets of Wishtide: A Laetitia Rodd Mystery by Kate Saunders
The Secrets of Wishtide is the first in a series of 6 books featuring Mrs Laetitia Rodd (Letty to her family and friends), a penniless widow of an Archdeacon, who lives with her landlady, Mrs Bentley, in a small shabby terrace once occupied by the poet John Keats. An utterly respectable woman, Laetitia’s talents lie in delving into the grimy depths of Victorian England. She is the perfect discreet private detective, using her gender and her subtle diplomacy to uncover the murky layers of misconduct. Working with her criminal barrister brother, Frederick, they are hired to investigate the suitability of Charles Calderstone’s lady love by Charles’ aristocratic father, Sir James. This supposedly straightforward undertaking turns into a veritable feast of dead bodies and old secrets. Laetitia Rodd is an wonderful character who, while navigating the often sordid and the duplicitous worlds of the upper crust, never loses her penetrating insight. Frankly, I adored Letty and The Secrets of Wishtide is the best reason to stay home on these cold and wet winter nights.
Orangeboy by Patrice Lawrence
Basic info: Set in Hackney. Very dark teenage read. Marlon, a black boy is on his first date with Sonya, a white girl. They both take some ecstasy. Sonya convinces Marlon to hold on to her stash. They are at a local carnival. On one of the rides, Sonya dies. Marlon is questioned by the police. Marlon is a somewhat naive and frustrating character - he makes bad decisions (I kept shouting ‘nooooo'! in the background): while trying to do the right thing, he ends up sometimes doing the wrong thing. It’s very compelling, fast paced and very ‘now’.
Review: Marlon is one of the good kids. His older brother Andre was one of the bad kids who ran with a bad crowd until he’s in a car crash that kills his best friend while he is left brain damaged. Marlon and Andre’s worlds collide when Marlon’s date with the pretty Sonya ends in tragic when she dies of an overdose after she and Marlon share some drugs. Marion finds himself caught between the nightmare world of his brother’s gang culture and the promise he made to his mother to stay out of trouble. This is a story about choices…
London Belongs to Us by Sarra Manning
Basic info: Well, of course it’s set in London. Sunny is on her way to meet up with her boyfriend Mark for the ‘big night’, as this night Sunny is going to do the big deed. Not sure how old Sunny is, probably about 17/18? Sunny, slightly apprehensive about the assignation, keeps missing Mark who’s always on the go. And then someone sends her an image of Mark kissing another girl. Poor Sunny, who’s kind and lovely, and never assertive, but who has the best afro hair ever now has to make up her mind - is Mark a cheating tosser or is he innocent? Over the course of twelve hours Sunny’s adventures into the heart of London take off as she tracks down her loser boyfriend. There’s a mad cast of characters, the standout being her best friend Emmeline who’s trying to hook up with this girl called Charlie, and then there are the French twins (who are actually cousins) who everyone has the hots for! It’s a light but very funny read.
Review: Quiet, unassuming Sunny is heading out to meet her boyfriend Mark for one very special night. Through a series of mishaps and quite a lot of text messages, they keep missing each other. But when Sunny gets sent a picture of Mark kissing another girl, she has to decide whether Mark is cheating on her or is just a victim of circumstance. This is an hilarious romp (truly London’s transport system has never been this much fun) through the suburbs of London (Camden, Shoreditch, Soho to name a few), with a gang of eccentric characters. Between some very dodgy fast food adventures, mad sashes on a scooter and a couple of scary incidences with a broom, Sunny’s determination to confront Mark grows stronger. At the heart of her tale is the journey of Sunny herself, who in one very long night, finds her true self, with a lot of help from her best friend Emmeline and one particular French boy… This is romantic, funny stuff.
Rosetta: A Scandalous True story by Alexandra Joel
Alexandra Joel has written the astonishing true story of her great-grandmother Rosetta, a woman from an upright middle class Melbourne Jewish family, who, in 1905, not only abandons her very young daughter but does so in the company of a half Chinese fortune teller called Zeno the Magnificent.
In London they revel in the company of top aristocrats and famous writers such as Conan Doyle. Ably assisted by Rosetta, Zeno make a fine living as a hypnotist, masseur and counsellor.
It’s a story hard to imagine but it is based on the impeccable research of the writer’s father Asher Joel, a prominent eastern suburbs politician, journalist and public relations. Although the author recreates conversations and internal monologues she does so in a thoroughly plausible manner fully supported within the trellis of the factual.
Maladapted by Richard Kurti
Cillian thinks he is a normal 16 year-old boy apart from his incredible intellect. But little does he know that he is far from normal. Cillian’s life is changed forever when disaster strikes which sparks a huge battle between ethics and religion and science and technology. Will Cillian survive or will he prove to be Maladapted?
In my opinion this book is one of the books of the year and one of the best dystopian stories you can read. It is exciting up to the very last page and you will never want to stop reading. Richard Kurti did a fantastic job and has written an incredible story. This book is recommended for the audience of ‘The Maze Runner’, ‘Divergent’ and ‘The Hunger Games’.
George and the Blue Moon by Stephen Hawking and Lucy Hawking
George and his friend Annie are no strangers to out of this world adventures. They have been into space four times before, breaking supposedly unbreakable codes and blowing up a mad man in a spaceship.
But when they are selected for a junior astronaut program they discover things are not always as they seem. Will George and Annie’s dream of going into space become a reality? Or will their dream become a cosmic nightmare?
Find out in this thrilling story and up to the minute scientific facts from the geniuses Stephen and Lucy Hawking.
This book is an exciting, suspenseful, edge of your seat, out of this world read and is recommended for ages nine and up.
The Windy Season by Sam Carmody
Paul’s older brother, Elliot, has disappeared. No phone call. No letter. Nothing. Disheartened by the efforts of the police, Paul heads to the West Australian coastal town of Stark and takes Elliot’s place as a deckhand on the Arcadia, a fishing boat skippered by their troubled cousin, Jake. Did Elliot just up-and-leave or did he fall in with the wrong crowd? Is his disappearance somehow connected to the local drug-ring? Will Paul’s search for answers take him down a similar path?
These are just some the questions lurking in the background of Sam Carmody’s stunning debut, The Windy Season, more a coming-of-age tale than a standard crime-thriller. Shortlisted for the 2014 Australian/Vogel's Literary Award, Carmody’s novel is a voyage of discovery. Discovery of self. Discovery of truth. Discovery of place. The town of Stark lives and breathes on every page - this place of drifters, dreamers, criminals and lost boys - trumped only by the ocean itself, a character very much in its own right. Carmody’s prose are evocative and controlled, perfectly capturing the beautiful, mysterious, fierce nature of the sea. There’s danger here - a lot of it - but wonder, too.
I loved The Windy Season. The characters are well-drawn, the central mystery keeps those pages turning, and there are plenty of sentences I found myself reading aloud (to myself… like a crazy person). Welcome to a fresh, new voice in Australian literature. Highly recommended.
The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey
There are loads of zombie stories out there. From Night of the Living Dead to The Walking Dead and World War Z, these happy-go-lucky tales of dismembered limbs and flesh-eating monsters have enthralled and disgusted us for decades. They can be grim. They can be fun. They can even be a little bit same-same. Brains, blood and guts. Hoards of the undead. A rag-tag bunch of survivors with (more often than not) questionable decision-making skills.
First published in 2014, M.R. Carey’s The Girl With All the Gifts offers something new. Sure, the usual ingredients are here. The apocalypse has come and gone, survivors are few and far between, the military’s doing its thing. This zombie-plague, however, was triggered by a fungus that now covers much of the British countryside, and the spores can be just as deadly as a bite from a zombified postman. Happy days. The coolest part? A new breed of zombie (or ‘hungry’ as they’re called here) is evolving. Melanie is an infected 10-year-old with a genius-level IQ and beautiful soul to match. She lives in a military outpost designed to study children like her. They live in cells. They’re wheeled around in Hannibal-Lecter-type restraints. They even go to school, taught by the lovely Helen Justineau, Melanie’s favourite. Justineau disagrees with the team of scientists who experiment on the children, butting heads with Dr Caldwell, who will stop at nothing to find a cure.
Of course, all hell breaks loose, and a desperate cross-country mission ensues, with Justineau, Caldwell, a bunch of military dudes and Melanie herself forming an uneasy alliance. There are thrills and spills, hungries and junkers, but the real joy here are the characters themselves, particularly Melanie and her unique take on this crazy world. What does it mean to be human? How far will she go to save Justineau? Their bond – zombie-child and surrogate mother – forms the heart of this story, making for an engaging, emotional, nail-biting read. Check it out before it hits the big screen…
Everyone brave is forgiven by Chris Cleave
It’s World War 2 and a small jar of home-made blackberry jam surprisingly remains intact in Alastair Heath’s kit as he moves from one battle site to another ending up in Malta. The German air assault on the island ensures a desperate lack of food for the British Army and the residents but the jam remains untouched. It was made by his best friend Tom who has died in the blitz of London.
Tom was engaged to Mary North, a feisty upper class girl who signed up for military service immediately war was declared only to be assigned as a teacher of children who were not deemed suitable to be evacuated especially a black child who captures Mary’s heart. To her surprise, Mary loves teaching but is later transferred to ambulance driving with her friend Hilda. Mary is soon injured in a life threatening accident.
This novel provides an insight into daily life during the war – the devastation of constant bombings, the impact on families, age-old prejudices, loss of life, the constant inconstancy of waiting for letters and brief snatches of intimacy. There are some melodramatic moments such as when Mary becomes addicted to morphine and Alastair is in danger of losing an arm. But these can be forgiven by the fine writing and the knowledge that this novel is based partly on the real experiences of Cleave’s grandparents.
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
A girl as light as air. An invisible boy. A necromancer. A boy with a hive of bees living in his goddamn stomach. These are just some of the crazy kids found in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, the debut novel from American author Ransom Riggs. An immediate New York Times best-seller upon publication in 2011, this is the latest YA fantasy-thriller to get the big-screen treatment, coming to cinemas in September courtesy of Tim Burton himself, the guy who brought us Beetlejuice, the good Batman movies, Edward Scissor Hands, and about 50 billion other movies starring Johnny Depp in crazy wigs.
Following a family tragedy, 16-year-old Jacob Portman travels to a mysterious island off the coast of Wales in search of the abandoned orphanage his grandfather once called home. He finds it, it's creepy, but all is not what it seems. Jacob meets Emma, a fire-starter who takes him through a nifty little “time loop” back to 1940, where Miss Peregrine and her peculiar children are still very much alive – and very much in danger. Somebody, something, is hunting them down, and Jacob may just be the only person who can save them. Spoiler alert: they’re all dead from the beginning. I’m joking. OR AM I? (I am)
There’s time-travel. There are monsters. There are kids with messed-up abilities. Perhaps the coolest element though? Riggs weaves a fantastic collection of (kinda disturbing) old photographs throughout the story, some of which inspired the characters themselves, to create an unforgettable read. And don’t worry, Johnny Depp isn’t starring in the film adaptation, but Eva Green is, so two thumbs up from this guy already. Oh, and it’s the first in a trilogy. Of course. Happy reading!
Freya by Anthony Quinn
“Freya” has been compared favourably to the
Elena Ferrante novels.
Freya a strong-willed and outspoken young woman meets Nancy, a far more gentle soul on VE Day in London 1945 and together they celebrate.
Their strong friendship continues post Oxford with Freya moving into journalism and Nancy to publishing. Their life encounters the social issues of the day, of the intolerance of homosexuals, the independence of women in the form of equal opportunity and pay, and the degree to which male chauvinism exists. Quinn does this with a light and effective touch.
Freya encounters these anomalies and shows herself to be an extraordinary women.
A very interesting and enjoyable read.
Fever at Dawn by Peter Gardos
Not another Holocaust story?! Yes - but no. It’s true that Miklos is a Hungarian survivor of Belsen. And Lili is also a survivor. But this story is about after the storm – it’s about rehabilitation in Sweden where these skeletal survivors are fattened up by the Red Cross and the assistance of some wonderfully understanding human beings.
Miklos, an eternal optimist despite his recent travails, despite having no teeth and despite having a terminal lung condition, is determined to find a wife amongst the 117 Hungarian women who are in refugee camps around Sweden. Miklos has beautiful handwriting and he writes exactly the same letter to each women. Lila is curious at first but after a while she falls for him and they are determined to be together and hang the consequences.
This is a book about optimism, rebirth, the joy of being alive after losing everything. What is more astonishing it is the true story of Peter Gardos’ parents!
The Family With Two Doors by Anna Ciddor
If you would like to know more about the way Orthodox Jews lived before the Holocaust then read this delightful historical novel by Anna Ciddor. Based on the stories told to her by her grandmother, the novel is set in Lublin, Poland in the 1920s where the large and loving Rabinovitch family live a traditional and rich cultural life determined by the teachings of the Torah.
Extensive research informs the backbone of the novel which describes daily rituals including meal preparation, the beauty of the Sabbath and special celebrations such as the betrothal and wedding of the oldest daughter Adina to a man she has never met as was the tradition.
But this is also a real live family full of mischievous younger children, serious older ones and the in-betweeners who are learning their place in the Jewish world. Father is a warm-hearted devout Rabbi and Mother is a bustling busy wife and mother overseeing a boisterous household.
Anna has enhanced the story with her charming tiny black ink illustrations at the beginning of each chapter and a portrait of the whole family at the beginning. Although the novel is nominally for children 8-12 it is really for anyone aged “8 to 108”.
The Whites by Harry Brandt (AKA Richard Price)
In the 90’s Billy Graves was in small tight-knit group of gung-ho cops self-titled the Wild Geese. Today they still meet up to tell stories and support each other, most are retired from Police work, but all of them are haunted by a criminal in their past who went unpunished, they call these nemeses their ‘White’, a reference to Moby Dick.
Graves is still Police, the head of a team of night detectives (1am to 8am) who are constantly happening upon terrible crimes, and it’s through his eyes we see New York as a crime soaked cesspool.
On duty at 4am, Graves finds a ‘White’ murdered, and it won’t be the last. Does he really want to know who the culprit is?
An excellent, sharp and gritty crime novel with haunted characters and a spine-tingling antagonist.
One of Us by Åsne Seierstad
A non-fiction novel in the tradition of Capote’s In Cold Blood, One of Us paints a picture of Anders Breivik, and his massacre of seventy-seven fellow Norwegians.
Anders Breivik was a friendless, isolated and angry man, and after many attempts at wealth and control including an internet start-up peddling fake diplomas, and a failed bid for candidacy in a right-wing political party, Breivik began writing a hate filled right-wing manifesto to save western civilisation from cultural Marxism, multiculturalism and Islamisation.
Horrifically these were not just words for Breivik, and despite having absolutely no accomplices or followers, he appointed himself The Knight Commander of the self-imagined crusading army the Knights Templar and proceeded to meticulously plan and execute the most atrocious lone gunman bombing and massacre in living memory.
Reading about a real life massacre is about as harrowing as you would expect but Seierstad's astounding level of research and intimate style knit together the story of Breivik with some beautiful and tragic portraits of young Norwegians and their families whose hope and ambition to help their country put them in stark contrast to their killer.
I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson
‘When people fall in love they burst into flames’
A powerful novel that absorbs the reader completely into the emotions experienced as a result of family tragedy, loss, first loves and true friendships.
Jude and Noah are incredibly close twins, only a few hours apart. When they were thirteen, Noah was quiet- always drawing and recklessly falling in love with the boy next door. But that was fine because Jude would always talk for him, while she jumped off cliffs and hooked up with boys behind park sheds. Then something changed. At sixteen, Jude is drowning in her mother’s hatred and can’t remember the last time she talked to Noah without fighting...that’s until she meets a charismatic boy and a nutty artist. If Noah and Jude could tell the truth, the whole dark truth, maybe they’d realise even while they screwed up they always had each other.
This novel requires the readers to throw themselves in headfirst; it is not a normal teen romance its abstract and crazy, these are two children who trade the sun after all, but in that way it is utterly engaging. In fact, the true achievement of this novel is that it uses the crazy imagination of the two protagonists and the wild stories they create to poignantly reflect everyday truths.
Perfect for fans of John Green, Rainbow Rowell and David Levithan
Reviewed by Katie McGregor
Whisperings in the Blood by Shelley Davidow
Whisperings in the Blood by Shelley Davidow
Shelley Davidow has skilfully captured the migrant experience of Lithuanian Jews who, in four generations, escape the pogroms of the early 20th century and end up in Australia via New York and South Africa. It is a story which will resonate with many of our South African Jewish population although perhaps not with quite as much tragedy.
Davidow follows the life of her great grandfather Jacob Frank who leads a sad and lonely life in America after the early death of his beloved wife. His children are sent to a Jewish orphanage and it is his daughter Bertha, Davidow’s grandmother, who becomes the focus of this book. Bertha left a diary recording some major events in her life which were seminal to her arrival in South Africa and which Davidow weaves into this family chronicle.
The author skilfully layers the histories of four generations creating a complex family history struck by joy and hope, failure and grief.
The Other Side of the World by Stephanie Bishop
The Other Side of the World by Stephanie Bishop
Migration, dislocation, loneliness and loss of self are incisively explored in this novel by Stephanie Bishop. It’s the 1960s and Charlotte and Henry live in Cambridge with their young children. Henry, an academic at a low grade university, finds England too cold, directionless and yearns for a new experience in the sun. Australia beckons. But Charlotte is not so sure – she is much less inclined for adventure and loves her known world despite its drawbacks.
However, she succumbs to Henry’s desires and before too long they find themselves in Perth, an alien environment of intense sun and harsh light with little respite. Charlotte, now a mother of two, in just pre-feminist days, is adrift in the dreary world of housewifery and childcare.
Bishop partly based her novel on the experience of her grandparents who migrated to Australia in the 60s. In precise but flowing prose, she evokes the gradual breakdown of a marriage and the dislocation of a young woman who has nowhere to turn. Quietly sad, sometimes hopeful, we are left wondering what the final outcome will be. And we’re not entirely sure that Charlotte knows either. But the writing is lucid and paints captivating pictures of the different physical and mental landscapes of Charlotte’s life.
Red Notice by Bill Browder
Red Notice by Bill Browder
Bill Browder, founder of Hermitage Capital Management was the largest foreign investor in Russia until 2005.
His story “Red Notice” is an account which reads like a political thriller. From his hugely exciting success as the head of a hedge fund Browder transforms to crusader in pursuit of justice and human rights. When he exposed the corruption of the oligarchs he drew the unrelenting and pervasive attention of Vladimir Putin. Browder lives frighteningly on the edge in fear for his life.
It is an exciting compelling read.
I Love Dick by Chris Kraus
Given the willingness recently shown by younger authors such as Sheila Heti and Ben Lerner to experiment with the traditional novel form, the re-issue of I Love Dick - the first novel by director/publisher/critic Chris Kraus (originally released in 1997) - makes perfect sense. Still, readers accustomed to the ambivalent, even defeated, tone that occasionally infects the work of Lerner and Heti will be in for a surprise. Kraus's writing exhibits a painful, even tortured, kind of self-awareness, but the book's message is bold and clear. Composed mainly of letters addressed to an unrequited love, along with ruminations on sexual psychology, philosophy, and snatches of art criticism, I Love Dick is part essay, part memoir, part manifesto - and a welcome reminder that the barriers most threatening to our freedom can often be the hardest to acknowledge.
The Natural Way Of Things by Charlotte Wood
Winner of the 2016 Stella Prize, the 2016 Indie Book Award, and of this year’s inaugural Jeremy’s Favourite Summer Read Award that I invented just now, Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things is an engrossing, at times horrifying, tale of survival, misogyny, corporate power and - ultimately - a fierce, sisterly bond.
Inspired in part by a true story, ten women wake in the middle of nowhere, drugged, lost, imprisoned in an old shearer’s quarters, perhaps. Ruled over and bullied by two guards and a nurse, the women are forced into hard labour, day by day. They wear the same itchy tunics and bonnets. Their heads are shaved. The women are connected, but how? And who - or what - is the mysterious corporation responsible for their imprisonment?
The story unfolds season by season through the eyes of Yolanda and Verla, two of the captives. The precise location of the prison is a mystery, yet Wood paints a vivid, claustrophobic world for the reader. A giant crater of scrub, dust and eucalypt. There are kookaburras, rabbits and kangaroos. Tin sheds burning under a merciless sun. An impenetrable electric fence. When supplies run low, and the daft but monstrous guards become more desperate, Yolanda and Verla realise the corporation may have abandoned them all. The women must save themselves, or die trying.
There is mystery. There is hardship. The Natural Way of Things makes for an unflinching, haunting read, but there is beauty to be found here, too. The unlikely friendship between Yolanda and Verla. Wood’s descriptions of the Australian outback. Her restrained, stark and stunning prose. This is a tight, layered story. A grim fable I highly recommend to all.
The Simplest Words by Alex Miller
Alex Miller is a prolific writer who has won numerous awards including the Miles Franklin twice and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize - deservedly so. This is a treasury of rich, wistful memoir, excerpts from his novels, some poetry and is peopled with many who have inspired his writing. It is a fascinating insight into the experience of writing and the way his craft has developed over many years. His early years in England were to form the foundation for his writing life which was slowly honed after his arrival in Australia. Not only is Miller prolific but the subjects of this novels are so various and different from each other – the aboriginal experience, the migrant’s journey, the artistic life – that one wonders how he taps into these lives. And this book provides some answers.
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
This book won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize and deservedly so. In this gripping World War 2 tale set in St. Malo, a medieval walled city in Brittany, northern France and in Germany, a mystery unfolds. Two young people, each with their own burdens, live out the conflict with extraordinary courage. Marie-Laure is blind and holds a precious secret aided by her loving father and then her uncle while Werner, an orphan, clever beyond his years, works for the Reich using his extraordinary radio and mathematical skills. Beautifully constructed, each chapter alternates between these two characters and it’s not giving way too much to indicate that their paths are inexorably colliding. The novel is crowded with plentiful examples of courage, resilience and venality not just from the main characters but also the other people whose paths they cross.
How to Be Both by Ali Smith
Ali Smith’s How to Be Both consists of two very different parts, set during two very different time periods. 50% of the editions you’ll pick off the shelf will have one part first, 50% will have the other part first. Written from the perspective of George, a teenage girl grieving the death of her activist mother in 21st century England, and the spirit of a long dead painter, the joy of reading How to Be Both is found in discovering how these two seemingly incongruous parts tangle around each other to become whole.
How to Be Both is, at the same time, a contemporary novel, and a fanciful, historical ‘what if’. What if one of the greatest, anonymous Italian painters of the 15th century was actually a woman passing as a man? What if the spirits of dead painters hovered around their paintings, and could follow people home from galleries? What if George’s mother’s death was more sinister than George had been told? Can a person exist in more than one period of time? The book incites imaginative speculation, but resists answering the questions it provokes. In other words, the book is a tease, but a playful one.
Ali Smith writes with energy and charm, in voices that gallop ahead and sweep you up with them. For those who don’t mind their literary fiction on the experimental end of the readable spectrum, How to Be Both is sure to delight.
Bouts of Mania by Richard Hoffer
Perhaps the first thing to be said about this brief but highly entertaining book is that one needn't have any more than a passing interest in boxing in order to enjoy it. This is not a book about boxing, or even really about sport. Rather, this is pop cultural journalism in the exuberant vein of Tom Wolfe at his best. In lively prose tinged with ironic humour, Sports Illustrated journalist Richard Hoffer playfully dissects a tumultuous period in American history (a period that saw continued debate over US involvement in Vietnam, as well as the scandal of the Watergate tapes, and the Kent State shootings, among other events).
Covering the five titanic bouts fought between Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier and George Foreman between the years 1971 and 1975, Hoffer documents the political and cultural upheaval that would affect both sides of America's racial and economic divide. And what better subject than boxing to unite all of these perspectives - a sport that can see a character such as Joe Frazier rise from dirt-poor beginnings amongst a share-cropper family to ultimately take part in some of the most lucrative and widely-viewed cultural events in world history?
Through clear-eyed but affectionate portrayals of its larger than life protagonists (of course the star is Muhammad Ali), Hoffer thrills and informs us in equal measure. Highly recommended.
Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick deWitt
Given this and DeWitt’s previous novel, The Sisters Brothers, it appears the author has created an entirely new genre of fiction. His novels straddle the lines of fairy tale, mystery, comedy and erotica, with Undermajordomo Minor feeling like The Princess Bride re-edited by A.M. Homes. Our hero, Lucien (Lucy) Minor, is a young outcast who has outgrown his hometown and takes on a job as underling to the Majordomo of a lifeless castle. The central story is one of love – Lucy meets Klara and will do anything to win her affections. Along the way he encounters a slew of oddballs - a pickpocketing duo, whose antics recall scenes from Monty Python; the cheerless Mr Olderglough, Majordomo of the castle, and his pepper-happy cook, Agnes; Klara’s hulk of a boyfriend, Adolphus, leader of a revolution of which nobody knows the motivation, and the elusive Baron Von Aux, with Teen Wolf-like tendencies. But don’t be fooled, this book is not merely a frivolous romp in an enchanted land far far away – it is a sophisticated read, quite hilarious, but also frequently melancholic and sexy. One word of warning: close your eyes during the salami scene.
The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George
Jean Perdu is indeed lost as his French surname suggests. Twenty one years ago the love of his life left and the only way he can assuage his pain is by running a ‘literary apothecary’, a bookshop where Jean diagnoses customers’ emotional states and prescribes the best book for easing the symptoms and pain each customer is suffering. But the only person he can’t heal with literature is himself.
There is another reason this is no ordinary bookshop - it is housed in Lulu, a beautiful barge moored on the River Seine in Paris. Jean lives in an apartment building on the Rue Montagnard which is also home to a successful young novelist with writer’s block, a weeping woman and a terrific concierge.
In order to find himself again, Jean realises that he has to make a journey back to where his lover came from so, in a dramatic moment, he unmoors the boat and sets off an a magical tour down the rivers and canals towards Provence. Along the way he collects an assortment of characters each contributing to Jean’s journey of discovery and their own pathways.
This novel is a delightful melange of interrogating one’s purpose in life and the mistakes made along the way, of using books to enlighten the journey and learning many of life’s lessons from the people Jean encounters along the pilgrimage he makes through the French canal system. And one of the stars of this story is Provence itself. Nina George celebrates this part of France through the medieval hill towns, the waterways, the smells, the food and above all the people – fellow travellers, local farmers, winemakers, cooks……
Translated from the German The Little Paris Bookshop is written in lyrical prose with deep observations about life and death, fear and sorrow, friends and friendship and above all love. The love of literature and the life lessons it provides is supplemented by a literary “first-aid kit” at the end of the book where the author lists important titles, the ailments they can cure and some possible side effects.
A superb read.
The Flywheel by Erin Gough
Far more than a love story this is a classic coming of age novel, which is honest and enthralling and filled with ‘just-one-more’ chapters.
Delilah is familiar with the consequences of misplaced crushes. After falling for the classic popular girl she has become the punch line in an array of homophobic jokes. Not only that but she is barley able to keep her family café afloat now that the manager took off and her dad went international.
And now she has fallen again, this time for a stunning flamenco dancer across the road- Rosa. Her best friend Charlie understands, he is always off doing outrageous acts to win the hearts of women.
But now Charlie’s in jail, she might have to break the law and Rosa is full of mixed signals. How can you tell another girl you love her without it ending in heartbreak and humiliation? And even more, when everything is falling into chaos is it possible to keep the beat?
The true triumph of this novel is that it addresses the love felt by LGBT teens with equal importance, messiness and passion as any other. It is captivating, uplifting, real and funny and filled with authentic voices and interesting dynamics.
It is not a book people should just want to read. It's a book people need to.
Reviewed by Katie McGregor
Stay With Me by Maureen McCarthy
Wonderfully written, absorbing, thrilling, tragic and touching. What more can you want?
Tess is married to Jay, a charismatic, generous and attractive man who says he loves her. Four years later his love has turned to violent physical abuse.
To save her child’s life Tess makes a desperate escape. Through the assistance of a stranger Tess embarks on a road trip back to her family. But in four years more a lot has changed. And the question remains- will Jay find her?
A poignant story with a remarkably relatable character which will ensure you never ask questions like- ‘why didn't you just leave when the abuse started?’
The terror created by Jay stimulates the book and allows you to gain insight and empathy for those affected by abuse. In this way it explores family violence and mental illness without lessening or simplifying the issues.
Not all doom and gloom the story also describes the incredible difference that a stranger’s kindness can have on a family. Leaving you with the sense that there is underlying hope in even the most horrific of situations.
- Katie McGregor
Embassy Row #1: All Fall Down by Ally Carter
Kickass kids. Government conspiracies. And of course…. Romance.
Similarly to Carter’s Gallagher Girls All Fall Down is written with flair, constant anticipation and plenty of action.
Grace Blackley’s mother was murdered, sanity is questioned and plot to kill the killer a go. Having just returned to Embassy Row she is surrounded by leaders with conflicting agendas including her powerful ambassador grandfather, her scattered friends with questioning intentions and he mysteriously helpful Russian boy-next-door Alexei. Grace is starting to realize that to get justice she may just need help.
But whom do you trust when you are so wrecked with grief, you yourself may not be trustworthy?
While as with many of Carter’s books a bit of going-with-the-flow is required, due to its simplified nature, her ability to create such strong characters and enthralling plots makes the read is both easy and enjoyable. The setting was vivid and intriguing, stemming huge amounts of tension and drama. As the blurb so beautifully puts, ‘Because on Embassy Row, the countries of the world stand like dominoes and one wrong move can make them all fall down.’
Filled with twists and turns you’ll never see coming.
Reviewed by Katie McGregor
RELEASE DATE FEB 2015