STAFF BOOK REVIEWS
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
Shortlisted for the 2016 Stella Prize, the 2016 Indie Book Awards, and winner 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