EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU by Celeste Ng

The first line - 'Lydia is dead. But they don't know this yet.' Oh wow, what a beginning, where is this going, and where has it been to open with such a stunning nine little words. Lydia's family is very ordinary - Mum, Dad, three children - Nath her 17 year old brother, Lydia who is 16, and younger sister Hannah. It is 1977, the family live in a town in Ohio, Dad James is a lecturer at the local university, and Mum Marilyn is a stay-at-home Mum. The only difference, the only thing that makes them stand out in the local community is that they are Chinese, the only Chinese in the town. So not only do they look different which is terrible enough when you are a teenager, but they also carry the cultural expectation that the children are going to be genius, realise all the burdensome dreams of their parents, grandparents. Things in life have not turned out as expected for parents James and Marilyn and they see Lydia, the brightest star of the three children, as the channel of their unrealised ambitions.

All of this unfolds as the story gets underway, and we also read the backstory to James and Marilyn. These are just ordinary people, just like the majority of us. Many of us are parents, we have all been teenagers in our own often suffocating families. This novel explores and details oh so beautifully the intricate and intimate dynamics within a family, how it can go so terribly wrong so easily. The characters, all of them, are so well drawn and crafted, gently revealing themselves, their motivations. The tension is also gentle, slowly building, the big question being was Lydia murdered? Did she take her own life? Was it all an accident? Right up to the end the reader does not know. Although the death of Lydia is at the heart of the book, it is not actually what the book is about. Rather it is about a family, its dynamics, secrets, interactions, favouritism and disappointment. Very very good. 

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. 

STASI CHILD by David Young

The cover is so 'airport book shop' pick-me read - easy, light, thriller, a page turner, just the thing for a long flight. Or wet weekend. And the plot is also very easy and quick to come to grips with. Set in  East Germany in the 1970s you know already it isn't going to be a happy, cheerful, fun read. Corruption, bleakness, paranoia, spying, distrust and propaganda fill the pages of this very readable novel. It is definitely a step above that standard airport read, and I guarantee it will hold any reader's attention.

Oberleutnant Karin Muller is the highest ranked woman in the People's Police. She is a proud supporter of the political system she has been born into, happily accepting the propaganda about the West , its dysfunctional capitalism, its wastage and general depravity. She lives in a society where everyone is constantly under suspicion, who can you trust, wages are low, living conditions bleak and colourless, independent thought is actively discouraged with arrests and worse. Karin is married to a school teacher, Gottfried. Gottfried has already served penance at a reform school for watching Western movies and associating with a known communist. Hardly surprising the marriage is under strain.

Karin and her partner Tilsner are investigating the discovery of the body of a teenaged girl on the eastern side of the Wall, looking as if she was shot fleeing from the West. They are tasked by the Stasi to only find out the identity of the girl, not the identity of her murderer, which immediately raises the suspicions of Muller and Tilsner. Naturally things are never what they seem, and there are plenty of obstacles in the pursuit of the truth. Parallel to this detective work is the story of Irma , a young girl living in the reform school that Gottfried just happens to have been sent to. Irma is there for the sins of her mother, who is/was a prostitute. This is a truly horrible place, awful things happen which are tied up with the murder that Muller and Tilsner are working on. Gradually the two plot lines meld, Muller going beyond simply identifying the victim, naturally, but leading to the satisfactory conclusion. Although a number of loose threads.

Even better, this is the author's first novel in the Karin Muller series, so there were plenty of fish hooks dangling at the end to easily support another novel. She is quite a character, Karin Muller, although as another reviewer pointed out, she blushes way too often whenever attractive men are about. Hardly a characteristic you would think would be part of a senior toughened police officer. I can't Jane Tennison blushing in public!

WHITE HIGHLANDS by John McGhie

A really well written, gripping and vivid novel about a dark period in both Britain and Kenya's recent history. Those Brits doing it again - undermining the locals and destroying their way of life, with the locals fighting back. Author John McGhie is a journalist, having worked for the BBC and Observer newspaper, C4 News, and others. Primarily an investigative journalist he has also turned his hand to film making, his major achievement being a prize winning film he made about historical war crimes committed during the Mau Mau conflict in Kenya during 1952-1963. This would appear to be the background to his novel, the focus being on the Mau Mau reparation case, seeking an apology and financial reparations from the British government to Kenyans still alive from those times. Britain saying sorry to any nation is a gob smacking event, this settlement unprecedented when it finally happened in 2013.

This novel then, takes place in both the present and the past. It is 2008 and Samantha Seymour is one of the team of lawyers sent from London to talk to the claimants about their cases and their allegations against the colonial government of the time. She knows her grandparents lived in Kenya during this time, met and married there, and that there was something very murky about her grandfather's involvement in the Mau Mau rebellion that no one ever talked about it. She goes to Kenya with an open and curious mind, seeking to learn more about her family history.

Back in 1952, her grandfather Johnny Seymour has recently arrived in Nairobi, still traumatised by what he saw in the camps at the end of WWII in Europe. He has since become a journalist/photographer, working with his old army boss Grogan Littlejohn,  for the Government Information Office. He doesn't really like the culture of the British colonial that he is forced to live and work in, preferring the wide open spaces of Kenya, but he quickly becomes smitten with Tansy, a nurse who has lived most of her life in Kenya, and would appear to be Grogan's girlfriend. But it is his work as a photographer that exposes him to the underbelly of the great British colonial might, and before long he is fighting his own battle to stay alive, record what is going on around him, and save the lives of both Tansy and their Kenyan driver.

Great characters, both flawed and honourable, terrific story development and a most satisfying conclusion. Excellent book.




WHEN THE MOON IS LOW by Nadia Hashimi

Average I am afraid to say. I loved her first novel, "The Pearl that Broke Its Shell", and thought I was onto a winner with this equally heartfelt story of an Afghan mother and her three children, making the horrendous and treacherous journey to her sister in England. This refugee themed story has been told numerous times, tragically sad and beyond comprehension for all of us in our comfortable and safe homes, but all too real for thousands of people in the Middle East. You would think it would be easy for a good story teller to convey all that in her writing, and yes, there is plenty of that in this story. But I really felt quite disengaged from it all. The story, the characters - I just did not have that feeling of being with Fereiba who is the mother, in her awful journey, there was a huge disconnect there.  Fereiba's story is narrated in the first person, and as a mother myself, I was trying very hard to relate to her, but it just was not happening. The parallel story of her 13 year old son who is separated from his mother and siblings while in Athens was even more dangerous, but again, I simply felt I was reading about this child's life from a far away place. This was more so, as for whatever reason, Saleem's story is narrated in the third person.

Lots of things happen to this small family, much of it awful, there is plenty of tension and suspense, but it just did not grip me in the way I felt it should. There is danger everywhere, but often I didn't feel the immediacy and horror of that danger. I don't think it is due to over saturation, after all we are absolutely awash in novels set in WWII, and these are stories we need to hear. But it is such a shame that for such a great subject matter, where I really wanted to be engaged, enraged, uplifted and humanised, that I simply wasn't. 

LILAC GIRLS by Martha Hall Kelly

The endless but necessary publishing of books about WWII, fiction, fact and mixtures of both continues at a relentless and consuming pace. Little known stories and characters emerge as great stories full of people of extraordinary bravery, kindness, determination and humanity. Novels like this one showcase the best and worst of human nature and behaviour, in appalling circumstances.

Here we read about three women. Two were real people  - Caroline Ferriday, a New York Broadway actress who at the beginning of the war is working in the French Consulate, doing her best to help French orphans, refugees, trying to keep the lines of communication open. The other actual person is a German doctor, Herta Oberheuser, who takes up a job in the Ravensbruck camp, doing unspeakable things to women prisoners. The third character, Kasia Kurzmerick, although fictional, is based on a number of Polish women who were interred in the camp and subject to medical experimentation. These women became known as the Rabbits - for being experimented on and because they all ended up with a limp, hopping around the camp. It wasn't until after the war that Caroline Ferriday became aware of these survivors of such brutality and used her many connections in New York to ensure they received reparations from the German government.

Fact and fiction are effortlessly woven together, with well rounded characters. The awfulness of the war is always present, its brutality. It is amazing really that any women survived Ravensbruck, let alone those weakened and deformed by the experiments. For what she did at the camp, Herta Oberheuser was the only female doctor tried at the Nuremberg war trials. She is perhaps the most intriguing character, brainwashed like so many Germans were, but also a doctor, pledged to care for the sick, and yet she is able to justify and rationalise her actions in the camp. She can leave, but chooses not to, money being the prime motivation for her to stay. Very disturbing.

And the lilacs? Caroline's favourite plant, and also in Kasia's parents' garden in Lublin, Poland, that were still growing at the end of the war, a symbol of endurance and rebirth. The story of how the author came to write the book is in itself also a great story, and I think she has written a marvellous tribute to Caroline Ferriday and above all the women of Ravensbrook. 

THE TOBACCONIST by Robert Seethaler

A quiet and gentle read set in turbulent times. It is 1938 in Austria. Seventeen year old Franz lives with his mother in a quiet settlement some distant from Vienna. He does nothing, has had a very sheltered upbringing, and is very naive, which I found a little strange, as in a rural community, I imagine there would have been plenty for a strong healthy young man to do. Never mind. His mother's circumstances change, and she is forced to send him off to Vienna to the care and employ of an old friend, the tobacconist Otto Trsnjek - the relationship between the two adults is never fully explained, and I often wondered if he may have been Franz's father. Otto lost a leg during WWI and now owns the shop that sells newspapers and magazines as well as tobacco and cigars.

Franz's eyes are opened to an entirely new and different world, which he slowly gets used to, and in the process develops a personality, because there certainly wasn't one there initially! One of Otto's customers is Sigmund Freud with whom Franz develops an unusual friendship with. The arrival of Hitler completely upends Franz's new life, the city of Vienna and the people who live in it. Franz finds he also has to make choices. As an aside to all this, he falls passionately in love with an interesting young woman with a mysterious life! The ending is a surprise, and strangely enough also satisfying.

So this is a very uneven plot description, because the book itself is quite uneven in much of its narration and its characters. However despite that, which may of course be a reflection on the uncertainty of the time it was set in, I did like it very much. The writing is beautiful - translated from German; Franz's changing relationship with his mother as he grows from young boy to young man is lovely to see. There is a strong message that comes through - determination to be good and find goodness when evil is all around - a message as timely now as it was then. 

SELFIE by Will Storr

I am not being overly dramatic when I say that we are living in a time of increasing levels of mental illness and challenges to emotional health, actual and attempted suicides, unhappy and unfulfilled people, over whelming pressures to be someone that we may not be internally programmed to be. These have always been issues in our communities through the centuries, but in the last fifty years or so there these issues have jumped to the fore of the lives of many many people in our world. But why? And what can we do about it?

This book takes a look at the very complex issue in two ways -  how us humans have become so self-obsessed and, what exactly it is doing to us. Such a complicated subject cannot be easy to write about and the result is quite a complicated, wide ranging, energetic and fascinating exploration into what makes us, and our own individual self. On the flip side, this is a very long book, there is an enormous amount of very detailed information which at times is too much. Plus, for me, way too much space given to long-word-for-word conversations between the author and his interviewee. Some more vigorous editing would not have gone amiss. All of this does make for a book that you need to concentrate on while reading - this is one of my 'read in the daylight hours' books, rather than a  'read before going to sleep' book, because you do have to be concentrate.

The author himself is an investigative journalist, whose life and career is very, very interesting and successful. In this book, he is very open about his own suicidal thoughts, his perceived dissatisfaction with his own self.  After looking at his website, with its diverse range of articles he has written, and his bio listing his achievements, you wonder why. But this is why he is perhaps the perfect person to write such a book. After all he has made it in his field, so what the hell is wrong with him? For these reasons alone this book is excellent as it is written with self interest at its heart, full of passion and that most important ingredient - curiosity.

He firstly sets the scene by looking at why people commit suicide or try, then takes us back to the beginnings of human civilisation when we lived in tribal groups, and conformity/sameness was the way the tribe survived. Then he takes us to Ancient Greece, where a beautiful and perfect physical form was such a crucial part of the philosophy of the times. The rise of Christianity /Catholicism with its rampant notions of guilt planted the seed for self doubt, inability to meet expectations. A long period of time passes till we get to mid 20th century USA with the beginnings of liberalism, the power of the individual, decline of collectivism, which have since evolved into the current latest greatest piece of economic thinking that benefits a few at the top of the money tree, and negates everyone below - neo-liberalism, epitomised in its most raw form as I see it in zero hours contracts. I still can't get my head around employing someone, but not guaranteeing them any work. Tied up with this is a hilarious and almost unbelievable chapter about the 'self esteem' industry in America. That was an absolute revelation for me! He then moves into the frightening world of Silicon Valley, start ups, venture capital, Google and the like.

Finally, the last chapter - how to stay alive in the age of perfectionism - where it is all supposed to come together, but for me doesn't! The only message I got out of this chapter, is that if you are unhappy in your life, things aren't going right, you are overwhelmed and not coping, do not try to change yourself. We are essentially programmed from birth to react to situations in a certain way - how do you explain children brought up exactly the same way reacting differently to a life changing event. Because the answer is that you can't change yourself - there goes the self help industry, cognitive therapy etc. What you have to do is change the world you live in, which translates as change your job/profession, where you live, how you live, who you live with. Easier said than done, but what this solution does is take away that you yourself are 100% responsible for your negative self-perception, and gives you the power to fix things in another way.

Well worth reading, and keeping for future forays. The ten page index is excellent, and the notes/references take up another 50 pages. Whenever you hear or read about why people self harm, you wonder if someone maybe a narcissist, what really went on in those hippie retreats in the 1960s, how Donald Trump got to be in the White House, pick this book up because it explains a lot.



NOT MY FATHER'S SON by Alan Cumming

Outstanding. The courage it takes to put one's life and history, warts, skeletons and all, right out there in the public domain for all to see is immense. It is unlikely that many of us would ever have this opportunity or permission to do so. For well-known and admired Scottish actor Alan Cumming, he was able to explore some deep family secrets via the TV programme 'Who Do You Think You Are'. I love the BBC and Australian series and have watched just about every single one made. Some stand out more than others, the Alan Cumming episode being one of those that I remember more than others. So to be able to read the memoir behind the programme was a book I could not ignore.

In the programme Alan wants to learn the story of his maternal grandfather, Tommy Darling, who left his family in the early 1950s, and ended dying in somewhat mysterious circumstances in Malaya only a few years later. Alan wanted to do this for his mother, Mary, and it ends up being a much bigger story than Alan or his mother had ever envisaged.  Unbeknownst to the viewer, there was another huge story going on behind the scenes - Alan's estranged and seriously ill father informing Alan via his older brother Tom, that he is not actually Alan's biological father.

The resulting memoir which covers the summer of 2010, the period of the making of the TV episode, narrates this tumultuous time in Alan's life. The chapters alternate between now and then, Alan's childhood/growing up years. His father was a monster, and so Alan tells us how awful and terrifying his childhood was, how his family life was, and the indelible mark it left on him, his brother and his mother as the years pass. And I can't say anything more, because it will spoil the reading experience.

Alan is brave opening his heart and soul, for uncovering family secrets, with the result some online reviews have been negative as a result. But I loved this, his search for belonging and kinship with both his never known grandfather, and his own father, the intense love he has found within his family and his personal relationships despite the appalling abuse he suffered. And as that TV programme has always been one of my favourites for its treasure hunt and history focus, I loved  this book even more. What it has highlighted too is the absolute uselessness and pointlessness of having family secrets and refusing to discuss stuff. One day it will all come to light, and quite possibly cause further pain and anguish when it never needed to be like that.


THE WONDER by Emma Neale


As the days go by since I finished this, my admiration and respect for this novel, both for its storyline and for its writing increases. Incredibly atmospheric, the poverty and despair of mid-19th century Ireland, combined with the rampant folk superstition and blind faith in the church pervades every page, every conversation. The arrival into the community of a nurse, Lib, veteran of the Crimea War, and trained by the amazing Florence Nightingale herself, with her modern and practical ideas, challenges everything this community holds dear.

The Wonder is an 11 year old girl - Anna - who has not eaten for some months, and is being hailed as a religious miracle for her ability to still be alive. Lib has been engaged by some community leaders to watch over Anna, sharing the task with an elderly nun. With her fact-based medical background Lib knows something is not quite right with this child still being alive after so many months of apparently self-starvation and she is determined to uncover the hoax. She is facing an uphill struggle in this very Catholic community, plus the threat she is posing to the  increased income showing Anna off to believing visitors is bringing to the family.

Lib remains stoic and focused in her mission, however as the days go by, she realises there is much more to Anna's fasting than is immediately obvious. She finds that her reason for being there is changing, leading her to make some tough and brave decisions.

This book grew on me so much as the story unfolded. It took a while for me to fully engage with what was taking place, but was certainly well worth persevering with. The writer evokes so well the precarious existence of the Irish at this time, the dirt, squalor, hopelessness, the hold the church has over the minutiae of daily life. It was gloomy and depressing to read a lot of this. The frustrating struggle Lib has when she blows into the community like an unwanted wind shows how  far apart people can be in their combined mission of looking after an 11 year old child. 

THE NIX by Nathan Hill

This is a big book, both physically - 600 plus pages - and in scope. Enormous in fact. Numerous and diverse story lines, numerous and diverse characters, some very tenuous links, moving back and forth in time between 1968 to 1988 to 2011, there is a lot going on. But for the most part it holds together superbly well, showcasing the wonderful story telling talents of the writer, and his mastery of language and writing. I really loved this, it was a complete surprise, and  most enjoyable, if somewhat difficult to hold open due to its massive size.

The cover shows a protest, young hippy people in a sit down somewhere in the US. Chicago actually in 1968, thousands of students protesting the Vietnam War in that year that has come to be the defining year of a tumultuous decade in the USA. Faye is the young woman with glasses, Sebastian is the young man she is leaning against, and Alice is the fierce looking young woman with sunglasses. Faye is the pivotal character in the whole book, it is really her story, how her actions and the things that happen to her at this time impact so critically on her life and that of her son Samuel. Most of the story is told from Samuel's point of view. In 2011 he is in his early thirties, single,  a university professor of English, disillusioned, bored, spends more time as an avatar in his favourite online game Elfscape.

With his job under threat due to the self indulgent actions of one of his students, Samuel, once a promising writer who has never delivered on a book he was paid in advance for, now finds himself facing the prospect of doing a hatchet job biography of his mother Faye in order to save himself. Faye abandoned Samuel and her husband Henry when Samuel was 11, and has never been heard of or seen since. Now she has been arrested for allegedly throwing handfuls of gravel at an aspiring presidential candidate during a walk about in a public park. Samuel, therefore, in order to save himself, takes on the task of hunting down his mother and facing up to why she left her family.

This is such a simplistic plot outline even though it is actually quite long, but against this background so much goes on - Samuel's childhood in the days leading up to his mother's disappearance and his peculiar friendship with twins Bethany and Bishop, his mother's story which really begins with her father migrating from Norway after the war. Why did that happen? He fills her with dread and fear with his stories of Norwegian mythical creatures including the Nix, which stay with poor Faye for far too long. There are a host of other characters too, the most interesting although really completely irrelevant to the overall book, being one of the other players in the Elfscape game. His near death from too much time on line is very much a parable for modern times, and for me was one of the highlights. In many ways this novel is a social history of the USA, much of it being centred on Chicago and the riots that followed that took place in 1968. Many of the issues important then are still important today, making this novel very relevant reading.


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. 

THE OUTSIDER: MY LIFE IN INTRIGUE by Frederick Forsyth

What a rollicking great read this has been! The author of Day of the Jackal, The Odessa Files and The Dogs of War, probably his most well known and widely read books, has now written his own story. And it is fabulously entertaining, full of real life stories every bit as good as those he as written about. A New York Times reviewer had this to say: "Reading “The Outsider” is like finding yourself trapped in a pub with an insistent storyteller. You know you have better, worthier things to do, but your host is so genial and so quick to refill your glass that before you know it, you’ve whiled away a very pleasant evening." And I can't actually think of a better way saying it!

From his earliest memories, Forsyth wanted a life of adventure. Born just before the war, his early years growing up in Kent on England's east coast, the area was full of war machinery, air force bases with Sptifires, planes taking off and landing all the time. Terribly exciting. After the war, he was packed off to boarding school for a not-very-enjoyable- time, but his parents, especially his father, had the foresight to send him off in his school holidays to the continent for immersion in French, then German. He also learnt Russian, and in his late teens with a friend debunked to Spain for some months where he also picked up Spanish. And a host of adventures! You will have to read to find out more.

His adventurous path in life was set. Exciting times in the RAF, were followed by becoming a foreign correspondent for Reuters, firstly in Paris, then East Berlin. He then signed up with the BBC which resulted in him being the BBC's man in Nigeria during the civil war of the late 1960s. Completely unexpectedly he found himself in an activist role, bringing to the attention of the British public the terrible plight of the Biafran population, basically starving to death. He has nothing nice to say about the British government in its conduct during this time, this perhaps being a defining experience in Forsyth's life.

The three novels mentioned above were the direct result of his experiences in Paris during the leadership of De Gaulle, in the post-Nazi world of East Germany, and knowing mercenaries in African politics. Forsyth's life itself reads like one of these novels. Fact is stranger than fiction so the saying goes, and this is certainly a life well lived! It is possible that some of these tales have got a little taller in the telling, and with the passing of the years, but who cares! I expect almost all the people mentioned are now dead or nearly there, and I doubt if it would be possible now to have a life quite like this. So you will be entertained, you will definitely learn a thing or two, and I bet you will also slink off to your bookshelves, and hunt out any or all of these three novels.

RED NOTICE by Bill Browder

This is a fantastic book, a riveting page turner that had me still awake at 130am. It is fantastic in a literal sense of the word, being barely believable but is in fact fact, and in the grab you by the guts a great reading experience. The author, Bill Browder, has had an extraordinary life, and is hardly the shy retiring type in his telling of his story. Even if his life had taken a different turn from the path it took, I fully expect he would have been an outstanding success at whatever he turned his hand to.

This book covers a lot of ground. The author's early life provides an intriguing background as to how he ended up in Soviet Russia making investors rich, in charge of what was in the 1990s/early 2000s Russia's largest hedge fund. It all comes unstuck when, Bill in trying to expose corruption, gets a bit too big for his boots. In 2005 on a routine fortnightly trip back to Moscow from London, he is denied entry and forced to return to London. Bill and his team expose a tax fraud, which eventually leads to the imprisonment and tortuous death of one of the Moscow based lawyers working on the case, Sergei Magnitsky.

Bill immediately turns from high flying investment whizz kid to human rights campaigner. Although he is continually full of his own bravado and self importance, occasionally unlikeable, he is incredibly tenacious, determined to bring justice to Sergei, to expose corruption at all levels of Russian government, and in the process has most likely placed himself on Putin's hit list. A Red Notice is the extradition request served by Russia on Interpol to arrest Browder on charges of tax evasion. He was actually tried in absentia, both Britain and the US refusing to act on it. He is still a wanted man in Russia. Magnitsky was tried and found guilty even after his death.

The story takes Bill to the top  of the US State department, looking for ways to hurt those Russian bureaucrats who were involved in the corruption that Magnitsky uncovered. Once successful, Putin in turn tightens his own screws by forbidding Americans from adopting Russian babies and children. Anyone who decides to take on Putin has to have big balls, and it is this underlying theme in the book which makes it so compelling. Will Bill be the next to receive a plutonium laced drink or a poke on the leg with a poisoned umbrella? The cover blurb, for once, is 100% accurate. I can't think of a better description than what those few words say. 

THE JAPANESE LOVER by Isabel Allende

First up, if you are a diehard Isabel Allende fan, who adores who earlier books set in her homeland Chile, her use of magical realism, her unique and lyrical style, it is highly possible that you will not like this latest novel, If on the other hand, you have not read Isabel Allende before, or magical realism leaves you cold, and you are wanting what one reviewer called a 'comfort' read, a good story, easy  characters, then this is for you.

For me, I have only ever read her first novel, The House of Spirits, and not being a magic type person, it didn't wow me. Which is probably why I loved this novel, as I am obviously not a typical Isabel Allende fan! I can see all the shortcomings identified by other reviewers - the lack of character development, the use of many tried and true twentieth century plot devices - Aids, anti semitism, WWII, Japanese internment, child pornography and abuse, the stereotypical characters - cantankerous old lady, submissive docile Japanese, the lost, damaged and frail young woman. Yes all of that is there, but I didn't really see any of this in the story telling or in my enjoyment of the novel.

Above all else, the author is a story teller, a marvellous weaver of tales and people's relationships with each other. Irina Bazili is a young Moldovan woman who has escaped a wretched life, now living in San Francisco. She starts a job at a retirement establishment, the type of retirement establishment I would like to end up in - serving organic food would you believe. Among Irina's elderly residents is Alma Belasco, a feisty, wealthy and very independent but lonely woman. She and Irina become close, and slowly over time Alma's story is told, including her close relationship with Ichimei Fukuka, the son of the gardener of the house she lived in as a child. Irina also slowly learns to trust those around her, and her story is gradually told. It concludes satisfyingly well, unresolved differences are resolved, characters are surprising. I enjoyed it very much. 

HAGSEED by Margaret Atwood

I have always been a bit terrified of Margaret Atwood and what she writes; reading four of her books over the years I thought was sufficient reason to not need to read any more. And then I read a review of this novel, her latest, part of the series whereby well-known authors are rewriting Shakespeare's plays. This novel is a rework of The Tempest, a play I have always found a bit weird and I had to do a quick Google for a plot summary. 

Well, I can safely say that this is a fantastic retelling of the story, moving with great skill and fluidity between the basics of the play and the modern day version. I loved this, just loved it, laughing out loud in parts at the wicked humour,  the nuanced workings of the relationships between the various characters, how clever it is to put 'a play in a play in a novel' as the Guardian reviewer noted, and how finely Ms Atwood has incorporated the story of the play into the story of the novel.

The book opens twelve years after the middle aged Felix lost his job as theatre director at an arts centre. Every year he would stage ambitious versions of Shakespeare's plays, until he was out manoeuvred by the slimy Tony who, twelve years later, is now Minister for Heritage. Coinciding tragically for Felix at the time of his job loss, were the deaths in quick succession of his wife, and his three year old daughter Miranda. He was also planning a fantastic wonderful version of The Tempest for that year's season, but had his plans cruelly stopped. Can you already see the connections to the original play? And this is also one of the joys of the novel - it is not at all difficult to relate the modern characters and story to the Shakespearian characters, or the loosely based plot.

Now Felix lives alone in a run down cottage, alone expect for the spiritual presence of his daughter. For a few years he has been running a Literacy through Literature programme at the local correctional facility, working with a bunch of low security prisoners funded by a government funded and approved trial under the auspices of none other than the Ministry of Heritage. This disparate group has successfully performed a  few Shakespeare plays - Julius Caesar, Richard III and MacBeth. With such successes under his belt, and a core group of actors, Felix can now see that the moment is perfect to orchestrate his revenge on Tony and his minions, and to also stage his glorious play.

It is just magic, heart warming and uplifting to see how Felix rediscovers himself, how he is able to turn a bunch of semi-literate prisoners into Shakespeare aficionados, how they interpret, prepare and stage such a play as The Tempest, and how sweet revenge can be. Brilliant.


LIFTING by Damien Wilkins

Cutty’s department store, oldest department store in the country, icon of Wellington city, epitome of tradition, class, gentility, a bygone age, is shock, gasp, closing. It’s just a shop you may well think, but no, for Wellington where this novel is set, Cutty’s is an institution, part of the city’s landscape, a destination, almost a hallowed space. For those who work there, many of whom have been there for many, many years, the closure in two short months is a catastrophe. This is the story of what happens when the rug is quite literally pulled out from under those who work at Cutty’s, those who take pride and joy in the work they do and in the place they work.  

It is more than obvious that the fictional Cutty’s is based on the factual Kirkaldie and Staines which closed last year after 153 years in business. Like the author, I too grew up in Lower Hutt/Wellington, and have very strong memories as a child of making school holiday visits to the city, going to the big three department stores – DIC, James Smiths, and the best of the lot Kirks. My mother greeted by the smartly attired doorman, stepping with great trepidation onto the old narrow escalators, a real live lift attendant, afternoon tea with my Gran. Then as a student and lowly paid worker in the 1980s, after all the revamps daring to tread the grand spiral staircase with its gold handrails, the grand piano in the middle of it all, the very posh and beautifully groomed sales people, intimidating the daylights out of me as I carefully and delicately trawled my way through the overpriced racks, and avoided the even scarier make up counters. I remember taking my small daughters to the toy department, beautiful toys, vastly more sophisticated and delightful to walk into than the endless shelves at the Warehouse. No matter what my age was, and my stage in life, it was always a treat to go to Kirks.

Amy is 34 years old, a relatively newbie to Cutty’s with only four years employment under her belt. She is a store detective, one of maybe four other D’s, under the supervision of Trevor, chief of security. She really likes her job, likes where she works, is probably not as vigilant in her pursuit of shoplifters as perhaps the management would expect her to be, but still manages to pull in her fair share of POIs – Persons of Interest. She is married to Steve, they have just had their first child, Frankie, and she has recently returned to work. They live in what I am guessing is around top of Newtown/Melrose in Wellington, as she is close enough to walk to her mother’s place in Kilbirnie. Her mother, like Cutty’s, is also in decline, suffering from a chronic lung condition, pulmonary fibrosis. There is plenty going on in Amy’s life then, and to now have the added stress of losing her place of employment and her job, is piling on the pressure with no way of stopping the looming crisis.

But she is not the only one. Many of Amy’s co-workers feature in the closing weeks of the store’s life – Billy in Luggage, the blind Donal who plays the piano, his partner Timothy who does window dressing, twins Bert and Dougie who share the role of doormen and spiral spectacularly out of control, Rupert in Menswear, Pamela the cosmetic floor manager, Kent in Hardware, and finally Gertrude Cutty, last surviving Cutty family member now in her nineties who just cannot accept her reason for living shutting its doors. As with Amy, we follow how they cope and deal with the shop closing, their search for new jobs, reassessing their lives. And the customers themselves, who have been coming to Cutty’s their entire lives, what about them?

The story opens with Amy sitting in an interview room at the local police station. We don’t know why she is there, what has happened, who else is being interviewed; all we know is that it is related in some way to the closure of the store. She is ambivalent about being there, not sure where things went wrong that resulted in her being in the interview room. Much of the dialogue between her and the two police officers seems to revolve around her work following and apprehending shop lifters. It does become apparent fairly quickly that Amy herself has an alarming past, and is this why she is being interviewed? In her youth, she was quite the opposite to the wife/mother role she is currently inhabiting, reliable and valued employee, successful in her work, best daughter, and all round good citizen.

She was once part of a women-only activist gang, going around in the darkness committing some quite nefarious deeds against property and livelihoods. And then there is the huge irony of a guard dog being deliberately killed by one of the activists during a raid. Wonder what PETA and SAFE would say about that. I did find it a little strange that Amy had undergone some sort of monumental shift along the political doctrine spectrum from destroying businesses, to now working in the last bastion of traditionalism in Wellington city. I am not sure if people change to such an extent and so rapidly.

Even though Amy quite quickly moves on from this destructive lifestyle, gaining a criminal conviction as a permanent reminder of her deeds, becoming a paramedic, and finally a Cutty’s store detective, her compassion for those less fortunate than her does stay. It is just that now her attention has shifted from caged pigs and chickens to the POIs she deals with in her work life – “the needy, greedy or seedy” as defined in Cutty’s security manuals. She will be forever grateful to Trevor for employing her with her slightly dodgy past, these two in a way forming their own little team that does not ‘deal’ to every single shoplifter they come across. Is this why she is being interviewed? Has she not been vigilant enough in her duties, letting people slip through the shoplifter net? It would seem she has a social conscience, and is this really what Cutty’s is looking for in its employees?

But with only two months left till closure it doesn’t seem to matter anymore. As the weeks and days pass, standards in the shop slip. By ten days to go, stock has been strenuously gone through, items moved from one department to another by customers are not put back at the end of the day, the grand piano has had its last play, now covered up, the statue of Mercury at the entrance to the store has mysteriously disappeared as have the fake trees, some staff have already moved onto other places, jobs. The chaos in Cutty’s directly reflects on the chaos in the lives of the staff. Amy is also in chaos: she has had a job interview, but is torn between wanting to be with her baby and ill mother, and the family’s need for money with a falling down house and ongoing uncertainty over Steve’s job. Tensions arise between her and Steve.

So, the end comes, the event that leads to Amy being interviewed by the police. There will always be a perpetual mystery around this final act – was it deliberate, was it accidental, or was it in the hands of a third party, conspiring to get back in some way at Cutty’s management? Of course, in the end it doesn’t matter, it is just a shop after all, as we know new shops always arise from the ashes, and life really does go on. As it does for Amy. The doors close, and new ones open.

Aside from this being a really good book, well written, great characters, being taken down unexpected pathways and shop aisles, what I found endlessly fascinating was the very human condition of shoplifting. According to Amy everyone has a shop lifting story, either about themselves or about someone they know. For me three immediately come to mind, the funniest one being in a pharmacy with my one year old daughter in a push chair, me frantically trying to return all the nail polishes she was carefully picking off, then getting home, and finding she had somehow stashed three away into the push chair upholstery. She was one! Now she has more nail polishes than there are colours to paint your nails.

Goodness knows where the author got his shoplifting stories from, the acknowledgements are very sparse, so maybe he does not want to reveal his sources. But he has clearly done some great research into all this. We see it all through Amy’s eyes as she goes about her work in the store, trying to behave like a customer, observing and watching ‘customers’ who are not behaving like customers should. And then the moral dilemma of whether she should apprehend the POI, give them a chance to own up and pay, or simply do nothing. Where people put goods they are stealing will make you squirm, as will the brazenness of the shop lifting – the elderly lady in the tea rooms quietly dropping teaspoons into her handbag; the two women dressed as international cabin crew, as if a uniform makes a difference to how one is perceived. I would be ruining things for the reader if I disclosed more! Since reading this I have noticed I am much more watchful of others when in a shop, and also more aware of how I move around a shop, pick stuff off shelves or go through racks. SO interesting!

I have read two previous Damien Wilkins’ novels – Chemistry and Max Gate. I enjoyed the former, and just could not engage with the latter. But this latest novel, I have enjoyed very, very much. A lot of the enjoyment has to do with the setting of Wellington, Lower Hutt and the Wairarapa, and being of the same age/hometown/schooling etc as the author; plus being a fly on the shoplifting wall is brilliant. The last thirty years have seen much change in New Zealand, affecting whole communities, people’s jobs and employment prospects, the resulting pressures on families and social structures. Although we know nothing lasts forever, the closure of something as banal as a shop can easily become the last straw, the thing that finally makes people snap. When Kirks closed last year, it was all over the news, social media, last days’ sales, interviews with long standing staff and customers. This book is a great exploration of what may well go on behind the scenes of all that glossy veneer, written with just the right amount of kindness and compassion, not just for the staff but also for the loss of a city’s icon.