THE HIRED MAN by Aminatta Forna

It's 2007, in the small town of Gost, Croatia. Duro is in his 40s, a single man, born and bred in Gost, and likely to also die there at some long future date. He lives in an old cottage with his two dogs. Life is simple, uncomplicated, little happens in the community to disturb the day to day. Being Croatia in 2007 though, you know that in this story untold and buried events will be exposed.

It is the arrival of an Englishwoman, Laura, and her two teenage children, that opens the box of closely held secrets. Laura and her absent husband have bought the blue house, situated on the outskirts of town, empty for many years, neglected and run down. It is a house that Duro spent much of his childhood in, where his best friends Kresimir and Anka lived. The three were insepararable as children, Anka becoming Duro's first love.

All of this gradually unfolds as Duro's memories are awakened with the arrival of Laura and the children. He becomes the hired man of the title, helping the arrivals with making the house habitable, odd jobs, gardening and the like. One day the daughter, Grace, uncovers a beautiful mosaic on the wall of the house. Where did it come from, who did it? Duro finds an old car in the garage, the car that Anka drove in days past. These small events upset the delicate status quo in the community that has evolved over the 10 years or so since the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. Tensions lying just below the surface are set to explode.

Throughout the novel there is an air of something not right, unspoken history - the writing is so good, so perfect. The naivety and happy disposition of Laura, for whom the house is simply a summer holiday place, is brilliantly contrasted with the darkness that pervades Duro and the other long time residents of the area. This is not a grand sweeping epic whereby we are thrust into the world of war crimes, of people doing amazing heroic deeds, but rather a small story of a small town, an anywhere town, made up of very ordinary everyday people, being human, still coming to terms with a dark time in their history.

BEFORE THE FALL by Noah Hawley

When the New York Times calls this one of the year's best suspense novels, you know you are in for a really good, and it does not disappoint one little bit. The author is an American screenwriter, best known for the Fargo TV series, as well as a successful novelist. This is novel number five, no prizes for guessing what his next screenwriting project may be, and it will be perfect.

What a ripper of a novel. Eleven people board a private jet at Martha's Vineyard for the short hop back to New York one night. Three of the people are crew, one is a struggling artist, one is a body guard to a wealthy media mogul, his wife, and two young children, the remaining two a Wall St investor and his wife. Sixteen minutes after takeoff, the plane crashes into the sea, the only survivors being the artist, Scott, and the boy, JJ, who in an epic swim against the odds make it to land. Then the media circus begins.

Immediately an air crash investigator is called in, and the FBI is also drawn into the mix, firstly to find the downed aeroplane, then to hopefully discover what happened. There are red herrings galore as the back stories of each of the people on board the flight are revealed. The media mogul for example, has made a lot of enemies with his FoxNews style channel, and the investor is about to be indicted for fraud. What about the flight crew? How lily white are they? And really, why is Scott on board? Was he having an affair with the media man's wife? His presence and survival on the flight places him in a most suspicious light?

This is a cracking good read, well drawn characters, the reveal when it comes is unexpected, but also highly plausible. Gripping and realistic.

PIECES OF YOU by Eileen Merriman

A first novel by an Auckland based award-winning short story writer, this is clearly aimed at the Young Adult demographic. Of which I am not, well and truly in my distant past, although I have two daughters who are only recently out of the teenage years, both quite different girls who had quite different experiences of those years. So my review is very clearly tempered and coloured by my own long distant teenage memories, and also the more recent experiences of my daughters.

Aside from the first three years of life which fortunately we don't retain memory of, I would say the most traumatic time for most people is those teenage years - the years between twelve and eighteen years of age - high school. I have strong memories of hating myself, hating those around me, struggling with friendships, horrible girls, floundering, huge self doubt, complete lack of self-esteem, wishing and hoping I was adopted. Being tall, skinny, with glasses and braces was never going to be a good start to young adulthood, but somehow I made it out of all that. On the plus side my teenage years weren't burdened with social media, phones, texting or sexting, easy access to alcohol and drugs. Some of my peers were, shock horror, in sexual relationships with each other, despite the pill only just becoming mainstream, and certainly not available for teenage girls. For my girls the teenage experience has been everything as it was for me, plus all those things in that aforementioned list of burdens. All I can say about that now is I am not at all surprised there are so many unhappy, confused, bewildered teenagers and young people, with spiralling rates of depression, anxiety, thoughts of suicide, compared to 40 years ago. 

The relevance of this novel, therefore, to teenagers is undeniable, particularly those of school age. The recent high level media coverage over mental health in young people and the unacceptably high rate of youth suicide in this country makes this novel doubly relevant. Good on the author for tackling such a huge subject as teenage mental and emotional health. This novel tells the story of 15 year old Rebecca who has moved with her parents from Dunedin to North Shore, Auckland. She is not happy, uprooted from her close friend group and everything familiar. So far no surprises. She starts school, finds making new friends difficult, trying very hard to fit in. She goes to a party one night with a girl from school, only to be lured away by a boy at the party and indecently assaulted. Again probably no real surprises.

I won't go into the true definition of rape, but this is what she thinks has happened to her, and she is quite traumatised by what has taken place. To cope, she begins to cut herself in secret, the bleeding helping her deal with the mental and emotional pain of what has occured. She then meets her next door neighbour, a boy from her school called Cory. Things improve greatly for Rebecca, she makes friends, she settles into school, and her and Cory become very close, sharing a love of reading and writing. Rebecca's narration is full of the drama and intensity of first love, and very well done too by the writer. So much angst! Intimacy between the two of them however becomes very problematic due to Rebecca's panic and shame at what happened at the party earlier in the year. At the same time, Cory appears to be having some health issues himself, taking regular sick days, and not being fully engaged with Rebecca. The cutting continues. 

Much of this plot line is very relatable probably by anyone who has ever been a teenager, myself included. Some shocking things happen, but again not unusual in the teenage world. And there is certainly plenty in this novel to provoke discussion between teen and their meaningful adult, or for the young person to think on while and after reading this. My younger daughter has not read this, but she and I have talked about it, the issues  and outcomes. I always value her opinion, experiences and observations. Am I a lucky parent having such an open relationship with my daughter? I don't know, but I do know, as with Rebecca and Cory, that teenagers are incredibly secretive little beings, and can fully understand how parents say they didn't see coming whatever danger or awful situation their child has got themselves into. As happens in this novel.

However, I seriously wonder how true to the average kiwi teenager these two are, how relateable they are.  We have two white middle class kids, living with both parents still married to each other, and siblings, in a relatively affluent part of Auckland, and of above average intelligence. They want for nothing. There is one Asian teen, no Maori or Pacifica or LBGT teens. I suspect that there are thousands of teenagers in this country whose lives, families, and class rooms bear very little resemblance to the lives of Rebecca and Cory, who probably wish they only had the problems these two have, not that this comment belittles in any way the teenage experience. I find Rebecca's naivety at fifteen going on sixteen not truly realistic, which makes me wonder if the author's target audience is the younger teen, rather than the more knowing mid-high school and older teen. But what I really could not get my head around was how these kids talk to each other. For a start, any parent reading this review will know how the word 'like' peppers every single sentence, so much you want to scream. In this novel - none of that. I was expecting more swearing, more rawness in the exchanges these kids have with each other, more real. It was all very sanitised. I remember watching the UK series Skins a few years ago. Now, we don't want our own teens to be like that, but it was riveting, realistic, not afraid to show what life for many young people is like. My girls, in their sanitised middle class world, loved it. We ended up buying the whole series. It was frightening, confronting but excellent, and I just don't feel that there was enough of that in this novel.

Still the fact that this review is so long, shows that the book has got under my skin and that has to be a good thing. If you are a parent of teens or young teens, then this would certainly be a worthy book to leave lying around for someone to hopefully pick up, as it covers a lot of very relevant issues to the lives and well being of our young ones. Although how successful it as at resolving problems and issues facing teenagers is debatable, despite the list at the back of support services to contact. One thing I did really like about this book is the chapter headings. They are all classic book titles, many of which would be studied at school or university, such as  Catch 22, The Outsiders, Atonement and many other great novels and authors. Each title had some sort of relevance to what was happening in the chapter - very clever. I would love for a teen to read and review this book, several teens if possible, just to let us older and out of touch adults know if this novel accurately reflects the average teen life.

MR PENUMBRA'S 24-HOUR BOOKSTORE by Robin Sloan

What a magical reading experience this was, so engrossing, so marvellous! And how amazing it was when I put this book down on a cabinet in the dark to have it glow at me! Apparently the first edition hardback version was made with a glow-in-the-dark cover - thank you Auckland Libraries for purchasing one of those!!! Very cool.

So this book is really all about modern day magic, specifically the power of the internet and how the computer is now the dominant means of communication in the world we live in. This, of course, is in direct contrast to the other subject of this book - the humble book. From the time of the invention of the Gutenberg printing press in 1440, it has been the printed word on paper that has been the essential tool of communication, taken over in recent years by words on a screen. But words, whether on a page or on a screen, need form, and it is the magic of the font or more correctly the typeface that ties today with yesterday.

Clay is a young man very typical of smart young men working in the Silicon Valley area. Gifted and competent in his use of computers, algorithms, coding, hacking and general wizardry, like many he finds the company he was working for disappearing overnight. Hence his job on the night shift at the 24 Hour Bookstore, in San Francisco. Mr Penumbra is the owner of this rather unusual store, that seems to have two sections. At the front is the mainstream collection of books for customers to browse through and hopefully buy from. Further down the back there is a most mysterious collection of books, that attract a slightly different type of clientele. Being an intelligent and most curious young man, there is obviously some sort of mystery to uncover here, which takes Clay and his genius friends into a world where ancient meets modern. So we are taken into the Google behemoth - an extraordinary place to be employed; an underground library in New York; secret meetings where everyone wears black cloaks; a cult leader; coded messages. It is really quite brilliant.

I am not usually a fan of fantasy or science fiction, and this does sort of cross over into each of these genres, but because it is so firmly grounded in recognisable modern day New York/San Francisco, because physical books are its heart, because Clay and his fellow geeks are so wonderful and relatable, I didn't feel as if I was reading either of those two genres. There is lots of computer-speak that I didn't even bother trying to understand or make sense of, but it didn't matter, because the story is great and highly entertaining. Long live books!

HILLBILLY ELEGY: A MEMOIR OF A FAMILY AND CULTURE IN CRISIS by J.D Vance

A stamp on the cover of the book I read said, "A great insight into Trump and Brexit". Great way to pull in the reader, but slightly misleading, because this is not about politics, but an insider's story of what it is like to live the 'hillbilly' life - the white working class life of those who live within range of the Appalachian mountains, a geographical and cultural regions in the east USA stretching from Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia in the south to the southern tip of New York state.  The author's family comes from Kentucky, his grandparents moving north to the Rust Belt city of Middletown, Ohio, where the main employer at that time was a steel factory. The factory was initially 100% American owned, and over time was taken over by foreign interests, creating the situation that Trump so successfully campaigned against in his election policies. JD Vance, no win his early thirties, is in what appears to be the unusual position of having escaped the poor white working class hillbilly tag of his family by firstly, becoming a US Marine, then a Yale Law School graduate, now successful lawyer - the American Dream complete. This allows him to stand back from his own community and upbringing, giving a perspective to the reader, and more importantly putting him on his own voyage of self discovery.

In this memoir, he closely examines his family's origins in Kentucky, the move north, his own upbringing with his drug addict mother and absent father, his two siblings and of paramount importance his grandparents who ended up fulfilling the parent role in his difficult and compromised childhood. In particular he explores the culture of the hillbilly, the majority of whom are of Scots-Irish stock, their work and life ethic, how they are quite different from many other areas and populations of the USA, what makes them tick, and of most import, the derision, scorn and prejudice constantly targeted at them. In reading this I couldn't help but think that they have been put in the same category as gypsies, or indigenous working class minorities in many countries. In the western world economies of neo-liberalism, where profit is king, often there is little understanding of how these societies tick, and little compulsion to try.

So the situation in the Appalachians is not unique to the USA, but also in my own country, and I imagine in most other Western countries.  I loved this book for so many reasons - Vance's own family and life story, the sadness and hopelessness that is pervading daily life, how he managed to find himself and climb out of the vortex he was being sucked into, opening up his heart and soul to the anonymous reader, and from a sociology or anthropology point of view, the world he is innately part of that has made him the man he is, and will forever be a part of him. 

EVERYONE BRAVE IS FORGIVEN by Chris Cleave

Little Bee, Incendiary, and Gold - Cleave's three previous novels, all of which I loved. So I was very much looking forward to reading this latest from Mr Cleave. But I should have known it was too good to be true! It is not that this is a terrible novel, or badly written, it is just that it hasn't hit me like the earlier books have, especially Little Bee. Not that these are perfect either: you don't have to google too much on any of these titles to find numerous criticisms and average ratings. But I loved them and loved the emotional response they stirred in me, yes all three. So it has been very disappointing while reading this to not have that emotional connection, page by page waiting for it, sometimes it almost being there, and then not. I felt detached from the characters, from the plot, from the relationships and I don't think it is just me, as numerous other reviewers have also expressed disappointment. I think if you had not read any of the previous three novels, then you may find this a great book, because there are many good points about it. Just not for me this time round.

The storyline is good - beginning of WWII, set in London. Mary North is a young woman from a well off and privileged family. She desperately wants to do something useful now that war has started so she volunteers to be a teacher. The evacuation of children from London renders her useless until she finds out that special needs children, those with significant health issues and black children are to remain in London. So she resolves to stay and continue to teach these unwanted children. This causes major issues with her parents, her father being a senior government politician, in line for a cabinet posting. Tom Shaw is a young man, who has an important role in education administration which is where he meets Mary. He falls madly in love with her, and this forms a central line to the plot. His best friend is Alistair who is an art curator with the Tate Gallery. He volunteers and has what amounts to a truly awful war, involved in Dunkirk and that chaos and then stuck on Malta while it is under siege from the Germans. The story weaves around these three, as well as Mary's young black student Zachary.

So there is plenty of scope here for a great novel - plenty of action with the war both in Europe and the dreadful air raids on London, the intensity of relationships with the never ending and ever present threat of death and loss looming by, the appalling racism demonstrated by Londoners to young Zachary and black people in general, the beauty and starkness of Malta - a place I have always wanted to go to. There is some amazing writing, especially about the bombing raids on London, their effects on the psyche of the residents, and I did like the writing about being holed up in a hopeless situation on Malta. But despite all this, it just does not hold together at all well. Maybe I was expecting too much...I don't know.....3* 

SELECTION DAY by Aravind Adiga

Selection Day is that one day in the year when aspiring young cricketers (and their parents - who are really the aspirational ones) show off their cricketing chops to a bunch of judges who have sole power over who will be Mumbai's next great cricketing stars, with fame, fortune and cricket glory just around the corner.

It is a complete understatement that India is mad for cricket. In recent years the rise of the IPL has opened wide the dreaming skies for parents, agents, coaches as they desperately work their young charges on the cricket treadmill. The world is awash with stories of parents obsessed with turning their children into sports stars, musicians, chess players, A++ geniuses. And what good really does it do them. So this novel is a morality tale really, on what can go wrong when a parent's reason for being is having his child make the big time. There is, of course, nothing wrong with wanting to better oneself, and improve one's standard of living. But at what cost?

In this novel, it is further complicated by the father having not one child, but two, 16 year old Radha and 14 year old Manjunath. The three of them live in  Mumbai slum, this being the extra motivation for the father to have his boys shine. All energies are focused on the hard working and diligent older boy, but it is actually the younger boy who has the real talent, and who has to be made to see that he is really quite exceptional. So the basic plot of child/parent/talent, is stretched more by the addition of sibling rivalry. During the course of the novel, Manju is also tormented by his growing attraction to another young cricketer, a young wealthy and privileged Muslim called Javed. Javed is a bit like Manju's moral compass, seeing the corrupt and exploitative business of cricket for what it really is, trying to appeal to Manju's sensibilities to get him out of it. But will he?

Modern day India is a great setting for this novel, aside from the author's intimate knowledge of the place, we are also fully aware of how corruption is part and parcel of daily life in Indian society, how exploitation keeps the wheels going, how little control millions and millions of people have over their lives.

Great writing, and characters including the two secondary characters of the agent/promotor and the coach, the latter also disillusioned, defeated, but still standing in the vortex. There is a great story here, but for me it just did not hit the spot. The story ended up not really going anywhere. By the end, Manju is still conflicted over his relationship with Javed, Radha has self destructed, and cricket is somewhere far, far away. It is nothing to do with the cricket, it could easily be tennis, or cycling, or piano playing or any of these other parent obsessed activities that make the child simply a commodity to the parent and hangers on. But for me, the original gritty story lost its way.