LULLABY by Leila Slimani

A morality tale for our times - chilling, too close for comfort - that supposedly most benign of people, the family nanny and how it can all go so terribly wrong. In the family home two children are dead, there is blood everywhere, the nanny has been taken to hospital. There is never any question as to who the killer is, but I kept hoping  in my reading that someone else was responsible.

As parents, and I am will be treading on toes here, more specficially as mothers,  we are torn between two polar forces - being a Mum, caring for and nurturing our precious children, with all the stress, pressure, exhaustion, and tedium that goes along with it; and being our own person, continuing and maintaining the career that has been put on hold, friendships, interests, holidays, a life that we had before children. When children come along, one parent has to make the sacrifice, usually the mother, as unfair and unequal as it may be. So the Nanny - next best thing to Mum. But how little do we really know about the people we entrust our beloved children to.

This novel, made more perfect by being just on 200 pages, captures the dilemma of Myriam who has the opportunity to return to her legal career, and yet has to find the right person to look after her two children. Musician husband Paul is in favour of the idea, but does not make things easy for Myriam; I would say sub-consciously believing that the mother is the best person to look after small children. Louise comes along, seemingly perfect, and bonds immediately with the two children. But Louise has not had an easy or happy life, or even a good life, and over time her overwhelming baggage spills out.

It is the writing that pushes this story to a higher level than what you may think is a bunny-boiler-domestic-horror. The author is inside the minds and emotions of the parents, particularly Myriam, and of course Louise. The tragedy is an event that has been waiting to happen for Louise, it was inevitable really, it could be any family she has worked for in past years, or it may well have been the next family she would be a nanny for. For Myriam and Paul the tragedy came to them. 

A MAN CALLED OVE by Fredrik Backman

It's a movie in Swedish, please someone make it into a movie in English! It is a simply wonderful heart warming beautiful story. I loved it, adored it, it made me cry. What a treasure of a story. There is no getting past that Ove, who is actually only 59, is the quintessential grumpy old bugger. With a lifetime of pain, disappointment and struggle, culminating in the recent death of his beloved wife, all he now wants to do is die himself. But his wretched neighbours prevent this happening at every turn, every attempt. No one seems to understand he wants to be left alone, no one seems to have the same standard of care and respect for the neighbourhood they all live, he is just so sick of everything.

But slowly, gradually, despite Ove's considerable resistance those barriers are broken down. Without even being aware of it, Ove rejoins the human race, and starts living again. Wonderful. 

THE WISH CHILD by Catherine Chidgey

Such delicate, precise writing, words put together perfectly creating this difficult to read, sad, and touching story. It is only in recent years that we are getting a window on what life was like for the ordinary person in Germany during WWII. Although not oppressed and decimated as much as those in countries taken over by the Nazis, it would seem the average person's existence was as oppressive as those in neighbouring countries. In this novel, through the eyes of two children and a mysterious narrator the reader gets glimpses of how life in wartime Germany was no picnic.

The children are Siggy who lives in Berlin with her parents and younger brothers. Her father finds himself working in a censorship office cutting words out of books that are deemed unacceptable, emotional. He works in an atmosphere of fear and mistrust, the family aware that every word spoken can be heard and used against them. Siggy goes to school where the indoctrination continues. Erich is a little boy who lives in the country side near Leipzig with his pro Nazi parents. The Nazi regime did his parents a great service some years prior, the truth of which comes out as the story progresses. Eventually the war comes to both Berlin and Leipzig, bringing the two children together, who then have to endure the horrors of being the conquered people.

The Wish Child is the narrator of the story; we don't find out who the narrator actually is until near the end. The narrator reminded me very much of Death who was the narrator in another amazing novel set in Germany during the war - 'The Book Thief': not harmful, all seeing, wise, almost benign in its observations.

This is really quite an amazing book. I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would. There have been so many questions since the war about how did the German people not know what was going on under their noses, why didn't people stand up and object. I would say, after reading this, they were simply frozen with fear from doing anything that would draw attention to them or their families. The evil perpetrated by Hitler and his cohorts cannot ever be forgotten, and as long as stories  like this keep being published, we will always be reminded. 

NEVER LET ME GO by Kazuo Ishiguro

It is a very strange book this, not particularly likeable or enjoyable, but certainly thought provoking, disturbing and weird. I read it because some in my book club had read it, found it challenging, said it was worth a read. So I did. Was it worth the time and effort? For  me, no.

On line reviews warned of spoilers, so I was careful what I read. Getting closer to the end of the book, page by page waiting for the big twist, waiting, waiting, nothing. The premise behind the plot is disclosed fairly early on, and my expectation of some even bigger reveal was disappointing.

The story is narrated by Kathy, a woman in her early 30s, who is a medical carer. Without ruining the plot for readers, although there is plenty on line about the plot, it is suffice to say that there are no happy endings here. I think this is the big twist I was waiting for. Kathy has grown up at a school,  Hailsham House. It is a very protective and isolated school, well away from public eyes, and the reader senses immediately that things are not quite right as we know them. There are no parents, no siblings, only guardians. Her closest friends are Ruth and Tommy and a sort of love triangle evolves over the years, although they are so sheltered and hidden from the real world, they don't really understand love and relationships in quite the same way as the mainstream population.

The story is narrated entirely by Kathy, looking back on her life as she is about to enter the next phase of it.  She is trying to make sense of her life, the life they have all led, what is it all for, looking for some sort of identity, where they have come from. It is extremely peculiar trying to make sense of your purpose when it is a life led in a totally different way, and it makes for uncomfortable reading. I wouldn't go as far as saying this is a dystopian novel or even sci-fi. But it is certainly an intriguing, frightening and disturbing topic that is being written about. Hitler would have loved it. 

THE SIXTEEN TREES OF THE SOMME by Lars Mytting

It's a big book, a story that will take you from Norway to the Shetland Islands, to the Somme, but what a cracker of a novel it is. I loved this, its complexity, the unusual characters, the bleak landscapes so well evoked that contribute to what is really quite a bleak story. But it is the plot, so unusual and intriguing that really grabbled me. I really had no idea almost all of the time where this story was going, and the ending was still a wonderful surprise. It has been translated from Norwegian - the author is very successful in Scandinavia - and at times it does read slightly differently from how we perhaps would write/say the same thing in English. It is not a problem at all, and has no impact on the story, but the odd turn of phrase lends the narrative a bit of an edge.

It is the early 1990s, a small farming community in Norway. Edvard Hirifjel is in his mid 20s, living with his grandfather on the family farm. He knows very little about his parents, as they died in strange circumstances in a remote area of France near the Somme when Edvard was only three years old. He had been with his parents and was found a few days later in a town some distance away. He has no recollection of this time, although every now and again hazy sorts of images will float across his mind. He has been brought up by his grandparents. He comes across as being a loner, old before his time - I can't really believe he is so young - shaped by the deaths of his parents, the isolated existence he lives with his grandfather, his destiny on the farm, married to a young woman he has known since childhood.

Then his grandfather dies. A beautifully made coffin had been delivered at some time in the past, which was to be used for the grandfather  - the handiwork of Edvard's uncle Einar. But Einar is supposed to have died in France during the war. Going through his grandfather's possessions and papers, trying to unravel the mystery of the origins of the coffin,  he finds things that lead him to question what did happen to him, his parents, and to Einar. Over the course of the months Edvard finds the young man inside himself, he learns about himself, what he is capable of, his curiosity propelling him forward. In the end, he does answer all the questions, it is satisfying, uplifting, and well concluded.

Trees, wood, a love of the outdoors, the land, craftsmanship, having and taking time to do things, to think things - this is set in the time before email, internet, texting, social media. So there is a heavy reliance on telephones, letters, leaving notes, even having a real conversation.  We often need time and space to process things, this story would not have been the same in our 'now' society. Edvard's search for answers takes him to the Shetland Islands, once owned by Norway and where apparently many words in the local dialect are of Norwegian origin. The WWI Battle of the Somme is central to the story, and is depicted in the most graphic horrifying way.

It has stayed with me this story, it makes me want to go to the Shetland Islands, and even to the memorials at the Somme, to see for myself the places described and to feel the atmosphere the writer has been able to conjure up. 

MY NAME IS NOBODY by Matthew Richardson

My favourite type of book - Spies! Espionage! Double Agents! Red Herrings! This has it all. I read a review that this is a cross between a Robert Ludlum and John Le Carre and would easily agree with that summary. Not as sophisticated, intricate as Le Carre, but every bit as thrilling as a Ludlum, this is a great book. We are beyond the Cold War days so beloved by writers of this genre, the more modern theme of Islamic terrorism central to this story. Solomon Vine is the MI5 operative who has found himself suspended after a shooting that takes place while he is interviewing a suspect in Istanbul. Not long after the head of the Istanbul post, old friend and rival Gabriel Wilde, goes missing. Solomon is called in by his old boss to unravel the puzzle.

And what a puzzle it is. Cryptic clues are everywhere, beginning with a copy of Ulysses' The Odyssey, translated by Gabriel into English, and delivered to Solomon after the former's disappearance. It is in this translation that Solomon eventually finds the phrase 'My Name is Nobody'.  What follows is an endlessly twisting path, both physically and metaphorically as Solomon, a mathematical genius by the way, looks to connect the dots between the shot suspect in Istanbul, Gabriel's disappearance, and whoever 'nobody' may be, doors firmly shut in his face at every turn. To complicate matters further, Solomon's ex fiancee, now wife to Gabriel, makes a reappearance, desperately trying to find her husband. Murky, tricky, smoke and mirrors, who can Solomon trust, are his instincts as good as they used to be when he himself was in the field. The ending is both surprising and not, as there are clues planted in the novel that if you are smart will lead you to the 'nobody'. Just remember a perceived red herring is not always a red herring.

Terrific stuff. What is also very refreshing is that the spy work is good old fashioned surveillance, walking or running the streets, decoding messages, listening, reading body language, looking for the nuances in language, and behaviour. A very modern old fashioned spy novel, if you see what I mean. 

PACHINKO by Min Jin Lee

The cover and the title provide no clue at all as to what this novel is about, so in opening it and beginning to read you are in completely uncharted territory. Taken out of the comfort zone of the expected - judging the book by its cover, not possible with this novel. There is lots to learn in this novel.

Set against the historical context of twentieth century Japan-Korea relations, this novel tells the story of a Korean family living in exile in Japan. In the early 20th century, Korea was 'conquered' by Japan, becoming a colony of Japan, which resulted in considerable hardship for the Korean population.

The story begins in 1932 with Sunja, a teenage girl living with her widowed mother, helping her in her running of a boarding house in Korea.  She becomes pregnant to a wealthy Korean man, Hansu, who seems to have made a successful life for himself in Osaka. But of course is married. Sunja is 'rescued' by a young Korean Christian missionary, who promises to raise  the baby as his own. They migrate to Osaka, to the impoverished and squalid part of the city where the Korean population lives, and like millions of migrants before them all over the world, begin the long hard slog to making a better life for themselves and their children. At all times, often unwanted, but always doing his best, is Hansu who still loves Sunja and her son, but can never know who his real father is.

The story chronicles the family - Sunju, her husband Isak, her in-laws, children Noa and Mozasu, their children, partners over the years from 1932 to 1989. It is wonderful, deeply engrossing and affecting. A lot of history is woven into the narrative, which provides the backdrop to the despair of the Koreans and the appalling discrimination by the Japanese toward them. I had no idea at all about any of this. I loved the characters, the love and compassion they show each other, the smallest of gestures and kindnesses making life worth living. Every day they get up, bravely facing another day of hard work, little money, doing their best for their families. It is inspiring and beautiful, lives and people lovingly written and described. This is a time and place in history I know nothing about- I learnt a lot.