CITY OF CROWS by Chris Womersley

I couldn't find out if Paris was ever known as the 'city of crows', but crows, rats, disease, decay, plague, superstition, religious zealotry, witchcraft, burnings at the stake, evil, the devil, potions and spells all feature in this Paris of the 1670s. It is impossible for us in our sanitised, almost sterile and secular existences to even begin to imagine how hideous life was like 350 years ago. The imagination required to create this story, and the skill to craft it is immense.

So incredibly vivid, the mental pictures and images conjured up by the writer are amazing. The physical descriptions of Paris, its poverty and depravity; the rural country side and forests in their untamed beauty and simplicity of living; life as a prisoner sentenced to years working as a galley slave; what people wore, what they ate, how they behaved towards each other with mostly cruelty and ruthlessness.

But it is magic, black magic mostly, that is at the core of this novel. As a species our whole society rests on how we explain the unexplained. Myths, legends, fairy tales, religions all present explanations for where we come from, what makes the sun rise every day, where storms come from, worshipping gods of harvest to ensure food for the next year,. These are just a few of the thousands of ideas us humans have come up with to explain stuff, the ultimate being sacrifice of animals or humans to ensure the favour of the gods. So in 17th century Europe, with plague and pestilence or simply unexplained illness running rampart with no end in sight, praying getting no one anywhere, it is hardly surprising people resorted to magic as yet another tool in the battle to both stay alive and to get ahead of all others.

Charlotte Picot is a young peasant woman, losing her husband to plague, and three other children in years past. She has decided to leave her sick village in search of a better life, and with her young son Nicolas takes to the road. Nicolas is kidnapped by child slave traders, Charlotte left for dead. She is rescued by an old woman, well known and feared by locals as a witch. The witch passes to Charlotte her spells book, shows her what she can do to get her son back, and sends her on her way. At the same time, an unusual man who goes by the name of Lesarge is also on the road, making his own way to Paris. He is probably what we would nowadays calls a trickster, a magician, a con man. He has been released from a ten year sentence on the galleys, and is on his way to recover a fortune he knows exists in Paris. Somehow, magic brings him and Charlotte together, forging an unlikely alliance.After a number of adventures and encounters with other dangerous folk, as well as some magic, they make their way to Paris.

It is definitely a strange book, and walks a very fine line between the real world and the magical world. Both the main characters are extraordinary, and I veered from liking to disliking to liking to being horrified and what they do together and individually. There is always that little bit of tension too in the writing - will they see a way around their differences and fall for each other, or will they always remain distrustful and scared of each other. Unfortunately, for me as this particular reader, the magic got to be a bit much. The ending was most unexpected, rather horrifying, and ultimately plain silly. However, as another review I read pointed out, we have no way of knowing what state of mind Charlotte may have been in, deeply grieving, losing her last surviving child, always on the brink of finding him, but never doing so. Is it this state of mind that tips her over the edge? Or are there really darker forces at work? As for Lesarge, his own moral compass is somewhat disturbed too, and he struggles to break away from his past life in the shady world of magic, potions and poisons.

There is a fantastic imagination at work here, and the writing is terrific. But there is also a lot of magic and weirdness, and if the fantasy genre is not your thing, this will only be a 3 star. If fantasy is your thing, then this could well be a great read for you.

THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD by Colson Whitehead

Looking at the reviews on GoodReads of this 2017 Pulitzer Prize Winner, also National Book Award Winner 2016, this would have to be the most divisive book I have read for a very long time. Numerous 1 stars, numerous 5 stars, and the whole range in between. I expect for  many this is a book they feel they should read, not just for its prize winning cred, but its subject matter - slavery. For me, it is way way better than one star, I could barely relate to the one star reviews! This is a great book, deserving of its prizes and accolades. Oh yes, it is full of the usual terror, degradation, abuse, violence, all of it horrible and awful.

But it is also incredibly empowering, the power and strength of the human spirit when things are not going at all well. The determination that the down trodden show to keep what little self respect they have, the love and protection they show each other. It almost implies that the black slave population actually has more freedom than the in-charge white population, brain washed and frightened into conforming with the economic power structure in place. The economy of the South would not have survived at all without slave labour. There were of course the brave few who more often than not paid the ultimate price for helping slaves on the run. So many parallels to the hiding of Jews in 1930s-40s Europe, the fictional Hunger Games. Universal themes.

In this novel, the author creates a real underground railroad - we all know there was an above ground network that moved runaways from the south to the north. But this is a real one! With stations, trains, carriages, wagons, conductors, and drivers. Alarming and terrifying and imaginative. Cora is the runaway slave, a teenager off a cotton plantation in Georgia. Her existence is typically brutal, lives lived in fear, squalor, hopelessness. One night she runs away with Caesar, another young slave, and so begins her hazardous, dangerous and determined journey on the underground railroad. I thought it a brilliant novel, I loved it. A well known story told in a slightly different way. 

THE CHOICE by Edith Eger

Ordinary lives destroyed by wars, man's inhumanity and incomprehensible cruelty to their fellows. Again and again we read harrowing and horrific accounts of the ordeals that people go through when their country, their city, their home is invaded. And yet people survive all this, be it 99% luck and 1% willpower, or some other distorted ratio, not everyone dies. You wonder would yourself survive? How would you? Would you want to? And what happens after, why did you survive and not someone else, how do you manage to keep on living, find a new life, start again when all around you, people and places are broken?

Well, you have a choice. Edith Eger is now 89 years old. A Hungarian Jew, in 1944 when she was 16, she and her family were packed off to Auschwitz, all her choices taken away from her, other than the decision to live. Her mother's last words of, “Just remember,” she says, “no one can take away from you what you’ve put in your mind.”, and this is what keeps her spirit alive.  As a talented gymnast and dancer, she goes deep inside herself to cope with the appalling horror going on around her, the absolute randomness of life and death. She and her sister miraculously survive their one year of horror;  their survivals are a miracle, the two of them pulled out of a pile of dead, Edith with a broken back and typhus, amongst other health issues.

But the biggest scars are of course psychological. It takes a long time, and Edith is wonderfully open and candid about the struggle both mentally and emotionally. She marries a fellow survivor, they have children, they flee Hungary, they move to America. Life is not easy, they are immigrants, they have few skills, but eventually they make a comfortable life for themselves. All the time, however, she is tormented. One of the reasons she goes to college as an adult student is to try to make sense of herself, and also try to help others. Which she achieves most magnificently, becoming an eminent psychologist, opening her own practice, and still practising today. Her success has rested on her exceptional ability, through her own traumatic experiences, to unlock the trauma, the conflict, the reasons for her patients being in the state they are in, and then  helping them fix it. She is big on how we allow ourselves to become victims of our pasts, how we let the victimisation we suffered or experienced actually turn us into victims. And how we can let go of all that, and become the best person we can be. Through her helping others, she has also healed herself. 

This book is both a very powerful memoir, and a lesson for living, helping find the essence of our ourselves that is locked inside of us. We do have choices in how we respond to adversity, to times of stress, how we behave in our relationships with those close to us. This is not a self-help guide to becoming a better person, but a most generously shared and intimate account of just one person's journey back to self-acceptance and self-love. 

THE DAY OF THE JACKEL by Frederick Forsyth

Just goes to prove that old books don't die, they may go to the back of the shelf for years, as in 30 plus, but one day, the urge to re-read resurfaces, and it is just as a thrilling, gripping and page turning ride as it was when I read this as a teenager. And I know I was a teenager, because the date I bought it is in the front cover. A few months I ago I read Frederick Forsyth's memoir of his life, which is what made me pull the novel out of the shelf. Forsyth has lived an amazing life, and I loved his stories, probably embellished, his very engaging way of telling them, all highly entertaining. His three most successful novels, including this one, relied heavily on his post war experiences in Europe and Africa, with many of those stories and escapades told in his memoir.

And this, his first novel, is an absolute cracker. As fresh and relevant now as it was when first published in 1971 (before I was a teenager). I have since watched the movie made in 1973, also excellent and highly entertaining. It moves a little more slowly than action thrillers of today, but as a result you have time to closely observe the fashions, the cars, the much less crowded cities of Paris, Rome, London, the meticulous detail and care the Jackal takes in his work. The book is exactly the same - measured, well thought out, but not too slow, precise in its language, action and characters. It doesn't have all the whizz bang gadgetry and technology of today's movies, books and TV programmes. It has dial telephones, phone boxes, filing cabinets and boxes filled with millions of cards and papers that are manually sorted, huge ledgers and journals that again are methodically gone through page by page. Meetings take place around a table, not via video conferencing. Despite the lack of the latest whatever, this novel has not dated a scrap, and I loved reading it again.

The story is well known I am sure. Set in 1962, President De Gaulle of France has made many enemies over the years, including those who feel betrayed by De Gaulle's decision to give Algeria its independence. An assassin is hired, the Jackal, nameless, stateless, faceless, paid the laughable sum of USD$500,000. Half now, half on completion - he would never need to work again! Fancy that. Will he be able to retire in style, or will diligent detective work by the French get their man and save De Gaulle's life? Fantastic Stuff. 

THE WOOLGROWER'S COMPANION by Joy Rhoades

I think of Tim Winton when reading Australian writing that so lovingly and eloquently features the landscape of Australia as a backdrop to the narrative. He is the master of making the landscape as much of a character in his novels as the people, and this author has done a very job too in this novel. We generally think of the landscape as being dry, featureless, huge, flat stretches of sameness for kilometres and kilometres. Water, or the lack of, is a predominant theme, as are huge sheep stations, remote, isolated. Those that live and work on them a particular breed of tough person.  A life not for the faint hearted.

As in many countries during WWII, with communities and families depleted of their manpower, it was the women who held things together, doing 'man' jobs, managing finances, keeping everything going and in order. In this novel, Kate is a young woman living on her father's sheep station. She has recently married a soldier, mainly to satisfy her dying mother's wishes, but he is away. Her father, a returned WWI soldier, owns and runs the station, but it is increasingly apparent that he is suffering from some sort of mental illness, and unable to manage the farm the way it needs. Kate finds the farm is on the brink of being foreclosed on by the local bank, thanks to her father having made some unexplained spending. Kate also finds that she has to also manage two Italian POWs who have been allocated to the farm, a farm manager who does not take lightly to having a young woman tell her what to do, a young boy who is the nephew of the manager, and her housemaid, Daisy. Daisy is a 14 year old half caste Aboriginal girl under state care as all half caste children were at this time.

This is a huge amount for Kate to take on board, with few skills in farm, land and sheep management, let alone people management to help her out. She does however have great instincts and intuition, guts, and a good brain, just showing it's not what you know, but how you behave that is the true essence of success and character. Plus she has The Woolgrower's Companion, which she finds one day in her father's  office. The land and the weather, the lack of rain,  the wind, totally dominate the day to day lives of those on the farm and in the local community. The stress and tension of daily life in such an environment is present on almost every page, you almost want to be drinking a beer in sympathy.

The author's grandmother grew up on a station similar to the one in this novel, giving the author plenty of material to play around with in crafting her story. Kate is a great character, as are the two POWs, both very different men, who have little understanding of how and why they have ended up in Australia after being captured in Italy simply defending their country. There is a sort of love story between Kate and Luca, but of course Kate is still married to Jack. I love how Kate evolves in her marriage to Jack over the course of the book, as relevant today as it was 70 plus years ago.

What is not so relevant is how the Aboriginal people are treated and viewed by the largely white population, especially in rural areas where communities were much more conservative.  As we know this is an ulcerating sore on the hide of Australia, with still many unresolved social and economic issues. It is truly appalling how Daisy and her family were treated, how anyone of Aboriginal descent was viewed, although if you looked more white than dark, then your path was considerably easier.

I really liked this novel, and although the ending came without everything being neatly and tidily resolved - very annoying - it does leave things open for a sequel. Plus it would make a great TV drama. 

BABY by Annaleese Jochems

Wow, what an amazing talent this young woman is. All of 23 years of age, there is both an urgency and energy to her writing way beyond her youth. Her insight into how social media, celebrity culture, the culture of 'me', and how the resultant obsession with self has manipulated her generation of young people is spectacular. The result is a monster of a young woman, the 21 year old Cynthia, whose life and existence is completely dominated by her dangerously self absorbed, meaningless and boring existence.

This novel is well and truly a modern urban cautionary fable, about that privileged and over indulged generation us oldies like to call entitled, how their perception of self is so out of whack, and the consequences when it all goes wrong. A total nut job. I have already admitted I am the wrong demographic for this novel, even though I get what is going on (I think), but my 20 year old daughter, clearly of the same demographic as Cynthia and the author thought the book way too weird to continue reading. I wouldn't go so far as to say it is weird, but it is certainly disturbing.

Cynthia has a life of nothing. She has been to university, although it is not clear if she completed her degree or dropped out. She has no job, lives at her father's home, a man who appears to be both physically and emotionally absent, but he does have a great bank balance, spends all her time on her phone, watching movies, playing with her dog Snot-head (who calls their dog such a name?) and doing yoga. Anahera is the yoga instructor, a slightly older woman, with whom Cynthia becomes obsessed. When Anahera turns up on her doorstep claiming she has left her husband, the madness begins. After raiding her father's bank account, they drive off to Paihia, where absurdly, they purchase a boat called Baby, living on it just off the shore of Paihia beach.

Talk about cabin fever. As the days pass, and with no fixed plan of action, they begin to run out of money, Snot-head does not take well to marine life, Anahera remains disturbingly elusive, wanting to spend all her time swimming from the boat to an off shore island. Their random existence leads them to random encounters with others, none of which end well, Cynthia increasingly out of touch with reality, out of control with her emotions and actions.

So a bizarre plot with not a single likeable or even relatable character. All using each other for their own ends, the lines of communication and connection are constantly twisted and warped. The novel is narrated entirely from Cynthia's self-absorbed perspective, so cleverly we get to find out very little about the other characters and what is going on in their minds with the strange set up they find themselves in.

I wouldn't say I enjoyed this book, some very strange and disturbing stuff goes on. But as an insight into the over stimulated mind of a young person it is extraordinary. As is the quality of the writing, the low level tension held through out, beginning with the first line - "Cynthia can understand how Anahera feels just by looking at her body.", to the last paragraph - "For now, she shifts her head from one side to the other, resting it. Time passes and the trees are silent. A small winged bug lands on her wrist then flies away. She doesn't notice." This is an amazing new voice in NZ writing, we should treasure and nurture her, she will go onto great things. 

THE GUSTAV SONATA by Rose Tremain

I admit now, before going any further, I am a fan of whatever Rose Tremain writes. She is a marvel, walking the fine line between consummate story teller, and restrained, elegant, divine writing. Nothing is revealed too soon, but just enough from the beginning to set the tone, begin a story, beguile the reader with intriguing characters and behaviours. She writes with affection, not just of her story line, but her characters, the moral and ethical dilemmas they find themselves in, she creates real human beings, throwing life's troubles in front of them. I just love her work.

This latest novel is no different. Another reviewer made the wonderful observation that the book is composed in three parts, much like a musical sonata. And music features heavily in this novel. The first part begins in 1947, introducing Gustav, a five year old boy living in near poverty with his unhappy, unpleasant, non-maternal and morose mother Emilie in a small town in Switzerland. We have little knowledge of Emilie's circumstances and why there is no Dad on the scene. Gustav starts school, and meets Anton, a new comer to the area, shy, bit different from the other boys. Gustav and Anton develop a most unlikely friendship, Gustav being introduced and taken under the wing of Anton's wealthy parents. Anton is a very talented pianist, Gustav developing a great love of listening to Anton practise.

Anton's family is Jewish, upsetting Emilie who is anti-Semite, the significance and reason for becoming apparent in the second part of the book. This second part tells the story of the years before Gustav's birth, really Emilie's story, explaining quite sadly and poignantly why she is the mother she is to Gustav. Just another horribly sad war story really.

In the third part, Gustav and Anton are middle aged, Emilie is still alive but very elderly. The friendship between the two men has wavered over the years, depending on their life circumstances. Have they had good lives? It is hard to say. I suspect not, there is a lot of sadness in each of the two men. As they age however, they are brought together again, and the last few pages are just wonderful in what happens, and how beautifully it is written.