WE MUST BE BRAVE by Frances Liardet

When a book moves you to cry you gotta give it 4+ stars. Te power of words to make pictures, tell a story, touch a heart is really quite amazing, such a skill to tap into an imagination to conjure emotion. There is so much sadness in this story, but also hope and so much love.

It is actually quite a simple plot line but the intensity of emotion and relationships create a very powerful story with challenges and complications. It all begins in 1940, Britain is being bombed to bits. One night buses bring residents fleeing the bombing in Southampton to a small village, where the locals take them in. Ellen Parr, a young woman married to the older Selwyn, finds a four year old girl alone on the bus, left behind, abandoned  - who knows. No one claims her, so Pamela becomes the daughter that Ellen and Selwyn do not have. Some years later, Pamela's father turns up and takes Pamela to Ireland to live with relatives there. We can only imagine the torment, despair and grief that Selwyn and particularly Ellen go through, in fact the whole village really. Ellen carries the grief for the rest of her days, and like any form of grieving it never goes away, you just learn to live with it. More years pass, and another little girl inches her way into Ellen's heart, opening up that wound brought on by Pamela. What will happen this time?

Such a beautifully told story of a mother's love for a child, even if that child is not biologically yours. All mothers must be brave, as at some time our children will leave us - we just have to hope that we have given them the tools to be brave and strong themselves in their own lives. 

A LIFE LESS THROWAWAY: THE LOST ART OF BUYING FOR LIFE by Tara Button

Almost daily we read about, hear about, are social media-ed about downsizing, decluttering, being less wasteful, purchasing carefully and mindfully - you get my drift. So much advice, help, mindfulness, guilt trips, recycling, mental torment. In my own little way my 2018 New Year Resolution was to not buy any new clothes for 12 months, other than replacement underwear, socks, walking shoes, and Kmart sports gear. On the first day of a new year, I now look back and think I did pretty well, not perfect - I did buy a light weight travel jacket for an overseas trip, a skirt on my birthday, some seriously discounted winter woolies which have been put in the garage till next winter, and in a reversion to pre 2018 form, in November - yes 11 months it took - I had a little spree in Zara, but I have worn them all since. Plus I still have clothes in the wardrobe I have not worn, despite taking a pile to the opshop. Obviously still too many clothes, but the whole experiment has made me much more aware of how I shop, how I look at clothes, how I am not really that interested in just browsing for the fun of it. And also made me more interested in the psychology of buying - why we are somehow biologically programmed to acquire stuff, replace it or more likely replicate it, only bring things like wedding present silver out on special occasions, buy cheap for instant gratification. 

Which is why I read this book - random choice really, not being a fan at all of self help books - this looked like a good place to start. And it is! There is nothing earth shatteringly new in this book, but the author is on a crusade to change the way we shop, how our mental and emotional health is affected by the consumer/materialism culture we live in, and how we can jump off that train and manage firstly, with what we have plus how to look after it,  and secondly buy with our actual needs and personalities in mind. Although this latter does come with a heftier price tag, the author also being the founder of TheBuyMeOnce website, championing products that are more expensive because they will last forever. That is actually quite interesting reading too. She also looks at things we can do to make our lives more enriched without having to resort to shopping to get the fix - friendships, activities, hobbies and so on. Prevent the boredom...

There are a number of self-reflective tests you can do to find your shopping style, your clothing style, getting your head around brands and advertising, how to declutter your living space literally cupboard by cupboard. Like all these sorts of challenges, you never set out to to it all at once, you will end up a blubbering mess. She suggests a cupboard or drawer a day, little by little. The only drawback to this, I see, is that by the time you have done every storage space you will have to start again as the detritus of modern life begins to accumulate again!

So worth a read if you want some inspiration while looking at the overflowing kitchen drawer with four of everything in it. How many vegetable peelers do you really need? I probably do have four. 

WHISPERINGS IN THE BLOOD by Shelley Davidow

The author lives in Queensland. I estimate she is now in her fifties. Born in South Africa, she has lived in a number of different countries, leaving SA in the early 1990s following the political upheavals taking place there. She had a vague knowledge of her family's history, that her grandmother Bertha was American, that she grown up in an orphanage, but aside from that knew little about where her family came from.

In 2012 she found a box of letters and diaries that belonged to her grandmother, and this was the starting point for her to finally learn about her family's story. In the course of tracing her grandmother's and great grandfather's footsteps, she also came to see how her life is mirrored in those who have been here before. To be honest I found this aspect of the memoir annoying and unnecessary, almost as if she is riding on the coattails of her grandparents. Because her life is not nearly as interesting, dramatic or amazing as their's. Maybe I am being mean.....

The story begins in 1913  with her great grandfather Jacob Frank fleeing the Jewish programs of Lithuania, making his way to America. Marriage and children follow, for a brief time Jacob is happy and fulfilled, but the death of his wife leads to him putting the children Bertha and Meyer in a Jewish run orphanage. Unlike your usual orphanage story, the children had a good life here. Bertha developed into a smart, lively and beautiful young woman, making the extraordinary and very courageous decision in 1937 at the age 21 to migrate to South Africa to marry a man - Phil - she had never met, although a lengthy and loving mail correspondence had evolved. She turned down numerous proposals on the ship over to South Africa, I almost wanted her to jump ship with any of the lovely young men she met on this voyage, totally smitten with her. One was a New Zealander, and he promised to write to her every year for the rest of his life, which he did! The diaries of her voyage are a fascinating glimpse into ship life, the main form of long distance transport, and especially for migrants.

She remains true to Phil, marries him, is totally in love, and they begin married life in Johannesburg. Like most marriages there are good times, sad and tragic times, but Bertha is a fighter and a survivor. You have to be to migrate alone to a completely new country, family, society, way of living. What an amazing woman she was, and the memoir is really about her, and the legacy of family she left. Bertha's life is set against the back drop of the Depression, WWII, apartheid in South Africa and her travels back to the US. She retains contact with her oldest friends whom she was in the orphanage with, and also with her dearly beloved brother Meyer. You can see why I don't think Shelley needed to put her life in here too! Bertha's story is one worth telling, and Shelley does a superb job of it. This is well worth reading, and if you are spiritual type of person you may well like the Shelley bits and pieces. Not so for me, but loved reading about Bertha. 

THE SHEPHERD'S HUT by Tim Winton

This has to be the best book for me of 2018, hands down, without a flinch of doubt. The man is a genius, possibly one of the best things ever to come out of Australia? Certainly West Australia! His love of the harsh WA environment oozes through every page - the landscape, the weather, the air the characters breathe, the vast expanse of the outdoors. And his characters - in this book only two, but oh, what works of art and harsh beauty they are. A young boy and an elderly man - what greater contrast in life events, life skills, attitudes could there be. They have in common that they are both outsiders, running away from lives they have found intolerable.

Jaxie is a teenage boy, living with his abusive and neglectful father, his mother having died from cancer some years previous. He finds his father dead, and petrified he is going to be picked up for the death, he runs away: a born survivor, determined to make the long trek to a distance town where his aunt and cousin live.

After a few gruelling days in the hot WA sun, trying to fend for himself, he chances upon an old recluse, Fintan MacGillis, a defrocked priest banished to the salt flats outback. One of the mysteries of the story is that the reader never actually finds out what he did to be banished. Suffice to say, the obvious is what occurs to young Jaxie, making for a most uneasy alliance as the two forge a side-by-side life together. This can't last forever of course......

The voice of Jaxie is incredible.  Getting inside the head of a teenage boy is a challenge I don't even want to think about. The story is told entirely through Jaxie's eyes and voice, creating a character half man, half child - , tough, vulnerable, arrogant, frightened, strong, focussed, impatient, a vocab you would not want to share with your grandmother.  And his portrait of old man Fintan shows a tough, damaged but oh so wise old geezer of a man, totally self reliant apart from 6 monthly visits by unknown outsiders who replenish his meagre supplies.

I read 'Cloudstreet' a few years ago, and really did not like it. Then I read 'Dirt Music'' which I loved. This is along the same lines, simply amazing.  

BEHIND THE BEAUTIFUL FOREVERS by Katherine Boo

Annawadi is a slum on the fringes of Mumbai airport, home to about 3000 people in a small space, next to a sewage lake. You don't want to be living there. Every day gives meaning to the phrase the 'survival of the fittest'. Or the strongest, the fastest, the wiliest, the best network maker, the strategist. Here in the West, we really know nothing about the skills and innate instincts for survival. Which makes this book even more extraordinary, researched, compiled and written by an American journalist who knew nothing of the local languages, very little about India and its peoples. She had however, worked in and reported on a number of poor communities in the US, but absolutely nothing prepared her for the shock that is India following her marriage to an Indian.

Yet over the course of a few years from 2008-2012 she grew relationships, developed networks and trust, found herself an excellent and intuitive interpreter. This book are the stories and lives of just a tiny handful of people who live in the slum. The author writes a little about how she came to write this book, telling her own story of immersion in the slum community that resulted in this book.

The book itself, however, is not about the author, she makes no appearance in it at all. What makes the book so extraordinary is that she narrates the stories of the slum and the people in the form of a novel. She has got inside their heads, their souls, so we learn about what motivates them, their dreams, their hopes. We feel the anger, the dismay, the despair when things don't go as planned for Abdul, Fatima, Asha, Manju and others.  This book goes way beyond fact telling as one would expect from a non-fiction book, and yet the stories and relationships she weaves feel so authentic.

This book also exposes the very seedy and horrible underbelly of modern day India, that really no one really wants to acknowledge. The corruption is sickening, and yet an integral part of how the system works in India. I look on online and see the variety of tours us Westerners can do of the Mumbai slums. It makes me feel ill to even contemplate such a thing - more money being made out of the lives of those less fortunate than ourselves. The reviews on line are great, the sell of the tours is very attractive, but having lived in India for a period of time, daily walking or driving past where the poorest of the poor live, having read this book, having seen the negative reactions of Indians to realistic movies such as Slumdog Millionaire, I know in my heart that paying money to be taken on a tour of what will only be the cleanest and brightest places of a slum, where very little of the money you pay goes to your young well spoken tour guide and others involved in your tour, is not a good thing to be doing at all. 

AMERICAN BY DAY by Derek B. Miller

This appears to be a sequel of sorts to Norwegian By Night which also sounds like a ripper of a novel. This novel opens with Chief Inspector Sigrid Odegard on a forced leave following the violent outcome at the end of the earlier novel. She has gone back to her father's farm, spend a bit of time, find some sort of inner peace. Instead she finds that her father is in a bit of a state, having not heard from his first born child, Sigrid's brother Marcus. Marcus lives in the US, upstate New York, in an academic position at the university there. Life for him has not been easy following the death of their mother from cancer when they were children, and that for some perverse reason he seems to hold himself responsible for. Marcus is a regular letter writer to his father, and had recently fallen in love. Now, for some unexplained reason, the letters have stopped. Unbeknownst to Sigrid, her father has bought her flights to New York to go and find her brother.

No rest for the wicked! The USA is unknown territory to Sigrid, and she finds herself in a society, a city, a community in all sorts of turmoil and at complete odds with the way life is lived out in Norway. She locates the sheriff of the County that Marcus lives in, and finds out that not only has Marcus disappeared and is a wanted man, but that his lady friend, Lydia is dead having fallen from the fifth floor of an abandoned building. Central to the whole story is the shooting by a white police officer of Lydia's 12 year old nephew, a black boy, who was playing goodies and baddies with his two white school friends, with a pretend gun in his front yard. Into this terrible mess comes Sigrid with her Norwegian calm, perceptiveness, meticulous and analytical detective work methods. Her antithesis is the sheriff, Irving Wiley, a man of extraordinary compassion, intellect, and diplomacy, walking the narrow tightrope between a hurt and angry black community, a frightened, knee jerk white community, with the law hovering somewhere in between. The story takes place late 2008, just before the US Presidential election that will see Obama become the first black president. Hence the unease.

Together Sigrid and Irv make quite the team as do the other characters, who although minor, are as deeply rounded and developed characters as Sigrid and Irv are. We see America entirely through Sigrid's eyes - a place she simply cannot understand - its free for all gun laws and how somehow this is not responsible for random gunshot deaths; its continuing displacement and disregard for the black human being; that law enforcers - sheriffs, district attorneys - are elected individuals rather than professional appointments; the disdain that successful women, especially successful black women are held in. What surprised me was that all this took place in New York state, and not in some red neck southern state where I would have expected such attitudes to be. Many of the themes and issues raised by the author in the story, we as outsiders in NZ see looking in on America - what is amazing is that Americans themselves don't seem to be able to see what a really terrible society they have created over the past couple of hundred years, and continue to live in.

Despite the serious tone of the book, and the sometimes preachy ramblings by Irv, this is a great story. The relationship between Irv and Sigrid is outstanding, each trying to outdo the other on the crime solving front with completely different methods, the characters are wonderful, all of them. There is real heart and depth to them, to their relationships with one another. Parts of it are hilarious - the dialogue and repartee, turn of phrase particularly from Irv. The only person I can possibly imagine playing him in a movie or TV series is Tommy Lee Jones, who may now be a bit old for the part, but has that perfect combination of all the Irv personality. I loved this, couldn't stop reading it. Just brilliant writing, and how on earth you can have humour in a story with so much tragedy and wrong things in it I don't know, but boy does it work. 

STAY WITH ME by Ayobami Adebayo

Wow, another exquisite beautiful story, so unbearably sad. Set against the backdrop of civil unrest in Nigeria in 1985, Akin and Yejide are a young couple who met while at university. They have now been married for four years, and Yejide has not yet produced the expected first child. Having already agreed that Akin was never going to take a second wife as is the norm, Yejide is horrified and distraught to one day find her in laws marching up to the house with a beautiful young second wife for her husband.

As one would expect, life becomes very complicated for the three marrieds. Yejide knows she now has to get pregnant, and fast to keep this new wife away from her husband's bed. Such a drastic decision leads to great complications, sorrow, and betrayal. Life can be a complicated web that we unwittingly weave for ourselves, and when we are doing it to protect the ones we love, the complexities and deceits are greater with consequences that never seem to end.

Simply and beautifully written, this is a story of great love, hope, and battling against the never ending and awful pressure of being in a society where you are a failure until you have produced a child, preferably a boy. The chapters are told alternately by Akin and Yejide, giving both a husband and wife perspective of the marriage, their intimacy and the pressures from his family. Not a big book, but it does not need to be. 

FORCE OF NATURE by Jane Harper

This was a bit of page turner, and reminded me yet again, how Australia continues to produce really good authors and great stories. This has everything  a top thriller should have - good plot, believable characters and narrative, enough to keep the excitement factor up, and some unexpected twists, with clues popped in during the story that you just never fully twig onto till the resolution.

I haven't read the author's first novel - The Dry, which I understand is better than this one. This seems to pick up where the first one ended with Federal Police Agent and his colleague Carmen Cooper now on the trail of some dodgy dealings in a local corporate business. Their whistle blower Alice Russell has gone missing in dense bush during a company team building exercise with four other women.

Falk and Cooper race to the scene and over a few days the mystery of Alice is revealed. A toxic work culture, limited outdoors experience, the four other women and their relationships with each other, Alice herself, the past history of the bush and terrain where the women were including it being the haunt of a now dead serial killer. And at the centre of it all the rugged and unforgiving Giralang ranges - dense bush, over grown tracks, rain, cold, wind - all the elements that like a piece of Gruyere cheese have the holes all lining up at the same time to create perfect crisis.

There is an air of doom, danger and despair hanging over the entire story, which kept me turning those pages. This is an easy intelligent read, and if this is the weakest of the author's three novels, I can't wait to read the others. 

A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW by Amor Towles

Such a bland, dull looking cover hides a delightful and most heart warming story, with plenty of surprises and chutzpah. I knew the reviews of this were good, but was still surprised and charmed with how this really is a such a great book.

From the beginning the premise is unusual. It is Moscow, 1922 and Count Alexander Rostov is in court, his position as an aristocrat just too difficult for the authorities to deal with. So he is sentenced to live the rest of his life under house arrest in his current residence, the grand and very upmarket Metropole Hotel. Unfortunately he is not allowed to live in his suite of rooms, instead banished to an attic room. Being only in his early thirties, and a true man about town, this really is quite some punishment. But at least he is alive, not put up against a wall and shot! So he takes all this in his stride, with enormous dignity and some considerable intellect. What unfolds is a most unusual and joyous life as the Count builds a most marvellous life for himself.

He makes his existence in the hotel meaningful, developing relationships with other guests, the staff from the porter up to the head chef, and trying to stay on the good side of the managment. He is constantly finding ways to outwit and work around whatever the regime of the day maybe, which over some thirty years is a lot of politics and bureaucracy to deal with. Just think from Lenin, to Stalin, the war, the post-Stalin years, then Krushchev, the hotel being the scene of many meetings, dinners and parties for these leaders and their hangers-on.

There is humour, some of it black, some of it just plain funny. There is sadness, loneliness and grief. But through out Count Alex remains a true gentleman, reminding us that whatever our circumstances at the heart of any success in life is our relationships with those around us, as well as maintaining our own personal dignity and self respect. This was immensely enjoyable.

NINE PERFECT STRANGERS by Liane Moriarty

It sounds wonderful, spending ten days being pampered at a luxury health retreat, some distance away from city life, and plenty of distance away from reality. What could possibly go wrong?

In the hands of zealot retreat owner Masha, with her two assistants Delilah and Yao, you just know that plenty is going to go wrong. And what about the paying guests? The talent the writer has in creating her characters is that they could be any of us, they are so unbelievably normal in so many ways, so easy to relate to. Their journeys and life events that bring them to the retreat are all quite different, quite diverse, but they are as human as you and I underneath all the veneer and trappings of life. It is the nine perfect strangers that make this book such a treat to read, such a page turner.

A romance writer dealing with her own failed romance and bruising her ego has taken; a health retreat junkie who can't decide to have a baby with his partner; a mother whose husband has traded her in for a younger model; a washed up football star; a young couple who have recently won the lottery; a married couple and their 20 year old daughter dealing with a shocking family tragedy. And at the centre of it all is Masha, flawed herself, in need of looking after too.

From the beginning there is a sinister air, a slightl frission, nervousness as to what is going to happen at this beautiful place in the northern New South Wales country side. A 3 day silence starts the retreat, testing all the participants, forcing them to begin to face themselves, yet at the same time build relationships with others. We know this is not going to be an easy time for any of the guests. And watching over everything is Masha. What is she going to do? As the reader you never really know where the story line is going, how the characters will behave, the unexpected little turns. It's great, a real page turner. I was reading this every opportunity I could. Apparently Reese Witherspoon has bought the rights to make a film/TV series - can't wait. 

ORPHAN X by Gregg Hurwitz

Here is a great bit of escapist reading, with a new type of hero, someone who supposedly does not exist, trained in an off the books programme which may be under the auspices of the CIA, but who would know.... . Evan Smoak is an orphan, taken from the orphanage as a 12 year old by a mysterious man, to a new and unknown future. All he knows is that he will sometimes get hurt. What an understatement. The programme he is put into basically trains him to be the best type of killer, as well as teaching him every single survival, subterfuge, secretive and combatant skill he could ever need to keep him alive and safe from those who seek to kill him in retaliation.

Following a tragic incident, Evan withdraws himself from his role as a highly priced assassin. He builds himself a solitary but safe life, where he deals to the baddies taking advantage of the vulnerable, damaged, frightened and powerless in our society. A good man in other words, but living off the grid, and known as The Nowhere Man. Until following a good act, his past begins to catch up with him. Will he live or will he die? Who can he trust? Who will end up also dying?

Great read, fast paced, plenty of action. Plus lots of reflection of Evan's unusual life, and how he currently lives to keep himself below the radar. This is a pretty straightforward action packed thriller. I think 'I am Pilgrim' by Terry Hayes which is very similar with its lone hero is a better book, but this is still pretty exciting and gripping. Plus there is sequel - The Nowhere Man - where Evan again finds himself in a pretty dangerous predicament. Can't wait. 

THE TRICK TO TIME by Kit de Waal

The trick to time is not that difficult really - how it contracts and expands seemingly at will, but in actual fact it is our perception of how it moves that determines how we treat it. If that makes any sense...in my head it does... and I get what the author is saying too - life and our place in it is fluid, always moving and changing, as we do.

Irish born, Mona is about to go through a big change - she is turning 60 years old, wondering if this is the beginning of the end, where else can she go with her life. She lives alone in a town in England, putting her immense creative talent into making dolls, collector's items - made from wood by a local carpenter, beautifully and delicately dressed in clothes made from materials found in op shops, bricabrac. She thinks she might have another go at looking for love, but at her age uncertain where to find it. She becomes intrigued by a gentleman who lives opposite her.

Her story is not a happy one. Life in the town she lives with her father in 1970s Ireland is never going to be enough, so she moves to Birmingham where she meets William. The two of them fall madly in love, marry, have a child. Life goes tragically wrong for Mona and William, with nary a recovery or moving on in sight. Despite a sad story being at the centre of the novel, the story never feels completely tragic. Mona has a strength that gets her through a lot, still has her looking on the bright side, even if she is starting to feel a little isolated by her impending birthday.

There is so much humanity in this story, not only in the scope of the very real characters, but also in kindness to others, and healing in the relationships one builds. I read the author's first book My Name is Leon, an absolute stunner about a little boy in the fostering system. Beautiful story, beautifully told, and this has many of the same elements. Although it is dealing with adult trauma, and so Mona's world is not viewed with the same sense of wonder that Leon's world is viewed. I did love this book. 

WHITE CHRYSANTHEMUM by Mary Lynn Bracht

This book is a novel, but is based 100% on fact, a subject we really know little about, one of great cruelty, pain, brutality perpetrated by the Imperial Japanese army from the early 1930s through to 1945. Despite the diplomatic and political squirming that still seems to go on between Japan and the many countries they decimated over these years, the 'comfort women' policy did happen. The girls and young women of Korea were swept up in their thousands to 'comfort' the soldiers of the Japanese army, raped up to 30-40 times a day. It was only in 1993 that the Japanese government finally acknowledged the existence of comfort women.

This novel tells the story of two Korean sisters, Hana and Emi, separated during the war. Hana is dragged away by a Japanese soldier to a life of sexual slavery; Emi is left to grow up wondering what happened to her sister. Hana’s narrative covers the war years, while in Emi’s chapters it is 2011, and the elderly Emi is still looking for her sister.

The subject matter is quite brutal, you want to cry for Hana and what she goes through, and for Emi who blames herself for her sister's disappearance. War is a terrible thing, as we have seen with the accounts coming out of post war Europe. And here is another part of the world that suffered equally awful things; finally we are hearing their stories too. The author herself is of South Korean descent. It was on a trip back to her mother's village that she first learnt about the fate of girls as young as 14, possibly even younger, who found themselves in a living hell. The writing, told entirely in the present tense, is incredibly compassionate and kind towards these girls/women, most never surviving the war, and those who did treated as outcasts and damaged goods when they did return to their homelands. And white chrysanthemums? This flower is a symbol of mourning in Korea, placed on coffins at funerals, laid on graves, placed at the water's edge. So unbearably sad.

TINMAN by Sarah Winman

This would have to be one of the most beautiful books I have read in recent times. An exquisitely written bittersweet and divine story about friendship, love and loss. Three characters - Ellis, Michael and Annie. Now only Ellis is still alive. It is 1996, a town in Ireland. Ellis is 46, living on his own, working at the local car assembly plant. He had been married to Annie, who five years earlier had died in a car accident. Life stopped for Ellis. He is alone, and lonely. He thinks about his youth, his childhood. An only child, he was a quiet boy, a gifted drawer, encouraged by his mother to make something of himself. Ellis finds friendship in Michael, a boy his own age who comes to live with his grandmother. They are inseparable, Ellis' quiet personality a perfect match for Michael's joyful and energetic one. Young boys grow into young men, and their relationship grows too into one of love and intimacy.

Life interferes, the two are separated, Ellis meets Annie with whom he falls head over heels in love. They marry, and Micheal magically re enters Ellis' life, the three of them creating the most perfect friendship ever. Annie fully understands the relationship between the two men she loves more than anything and yet is never threatened by it. Perfection. Life interferes again, hence Ellis being on his own.

The story is narrated in two parts - the first half by Ellis, and the second by Michael. And at the centre of the story is Dora, Ellis' mother who also loved Michael and welcomed him into her son's life. Not easy in 1960s Ireland. Dora is not part of the story for long, but her influence and love for Ellis is a constant, as was her love for a painting of Van Gogh's Sunflowers, won in a raffle, symbolising life and beauty.

This book was a joy to read. Less than 200 pages, it is a love story that you never want to end. 

SAPIENS: A BRIEF HISTORY OF MANKIND by Yuval Noah Harari

Talk about chock full of information, every possible subject covered - biology, genetics, politics, sociology, theology, cultural history, religion, economics, industrialisation, war - everything you can think of related to the human condition. A truly fascinating whirlwind of the history of human beings going back, far too back for us to even begin to comprehend. And all in 464 pages. Immensely readable, the author must be a genius to cram so much into so few pages.

I can't even begin to think how much I learnt from this book. I am sure there will be plenty of experts out there to dispute bits and pieces of this enormous history, but even so, every page is a page turner. The author divides his book into three parts - the Cognitive Revolution where we learnt how to think - some 70,000 years ago; the Agricultural Revolution - some 12,000 years ago, and finally the Industrial Revolution - some 500 years ago. He looks at how we evolved from wandering nomads into settled communities, farming and growing our own food, then into larger communities - towns/cities/kingdoms from which law and order evolved. He looks at why and how the concept of religion and gods came to dominate societal order universally through human kind. How a society can never embrace the idea of equality and freedom because once you dig deeper, they cancel each other out. And what about money - how did that evolve? Or the idea of measuring time as a way to manage our lives? Neither of these were around in the days of the Neanderthal  and yet now we cannot possibly imagine living without either of these. Intriguing and challenging arguments put forward for many of the subjects he raises.

I loved this, it is an absolute treasure trove of all sorts of interesting stuff. I read it in sections, too much to take in all at once. I now need to get my own copy so I can turn down page corners, pick up and randomly open at any page to be reminded of what amazing and unique creatures we are. And for how much will we be here too, before we destroy the environment around us that has taken millions of years to create. Are we happy? Will there be a second Cognitive Revolution to address the changing world we are living in? Read this and have your mind challenged. 

TRANSCRIPTION by Kate Atkinson

It disappoints me to say that I was a little disappointed with the wonderful Kate Atkinson's latest novel. I think she is a master writer, both in her storytelling and in her craft of writing. Over the years I have read all her books, and immersed in her characters, deeply involved in their lives, adventures, good times and bad. This - ho hum. I felt dislocated from the lead character, a young woman called Juliet Armstrong. There was nothing wrong with her or unlikeable, I just could not get that usual feeling of character love that this writer normally creates in the reader.

Such a promising story line. Juliet is 18 years old in 1940, no father, her mother recently deceased, no siblings. All alone in the world, and so ripe for the picking by MI5 to become a spy of sorts in the ongoing hunt for fascists and Nazi supporters in wartime London. Does she even feel fully engaged in the process? At 18 maybe not - naive, trusting, unsure of her purpose in the world. This is all a bit of an adventure and a lark. She is responsible for transcribing - typing - voice recordings of meetings between an MI5 agent masquerading as a Nazi and fascist sympathisers. All fairly inane one would think, but of course part of a much bigger picture. Her fellow spies are interesting and unusual people as one would expect in this type of work, Juliet trying to find her place amongst them. One day things go horribly wrong, and Juliet's spying career - for now- is over.

The second half of the story begins 10 years later. Juliet is now working for the BBC, a producer for children's radio programmes. But she is still involved in the spying game; it seems once they have you, you are never free. People from 1940 begin popping up again around London, strange messages are left for her at reception, she suspects she is being followed. How much of the past is going to come back to haunt her? Like all good spy stories there are twists and surprises, and this one was unexpected.

So what was the problem with this? I think it comes down to a lack of tension. A good spy/espionage story has tension and conflict within the characters - why are they doing what they are doing. Their personal lives are often in a bit of a mess and yet other than Juliet we learn nothing about the lives or inner workings of her fellow spies. There is no lingering sense of fear or danger despite the feeling that the reader knows something is going to happen. One review I have read sums the characters up as dull and uninteresting, and I totally agree. There is also to much moving back and forth between 1940 and 1950, not confusing, just simply too much. I always go back to John Le Carre as the master writer of spy/espionage stories and this comes nowhere close.


THE DIARY OF A BOOKSELLER by Shaun Bythell

Just thinking about this book brings a smile to my face. This is so much more than what a bookseller does in his day to day life. It is a wonderful account of the books themselves, the building the shop is in, the town and community of Wigtown - bookshop capital of Scotland. The vaguely eccentric staff Shaun has working for him, his interesting flat above the shop, Captain the cat, the ordinary and everyday people he visits to purchase books from, the even more interesting, annoying, charming and ordinary people who are his customers, their strange requests and behaviours. It is funny, wry, engaging, sentimental, so very human and a delight to read.

At the centre of the whole diary and core to the very existence of the shop is its ongoing perilous state with the likes of Amazon gobbling up bricks and mortar book stores around the world. Shaun is a bit like David up against Goliath. His wrath isn't just aimed at Amazon, but also the likes of Waterstones and other big book chains. Is it any wonder he gets a bit grumpy and ratty with the world around him. But I loved this about him, allowing his deeply human side to emerge. Is his favourite bit of the day getting out in his van, paying visits to those looking to get rid of book collections? The anticipation of what each collection will hold - adult children clearing out their recently deceased parent's house, the retired minister selling a theology collection, the downsizing couple where some gems on Antarctic/Arctic expeditions turn up, the endless fascination people have for books on trains and railroads, the elusive search for first editions in good condition.

A wonderfully satisfying escape into the world of books, the people who love them and read them. He has an entertaining facebook page too - TheBookshop. The place of Wigtown as world book capital must now surely be well and truly cemented. Long may it reign.


A WEEKEND IN NEW YORK by Benjamin Markovits

I can imagine Woody Allen getting his teeth into this and making a movie of it - so much angst, so much naval gazing, so much pontificating on the earliest relationships we ever know - those with our families, and how we endlessly agonise and analyse them. Woody would be in his element with the Essinger family.

Every year in August the family gathers together in New York to support son Paul in his latest quest to attain glory at the US Tennis Open. Paul has been on the professional tennis circuit since his early twenties, he made it as far as the quarter finals at a grand slam, but since then has floated around the bottom two thirds of the top 100. Stalled. Is this going to be swan song tournament? He lives with his ex-model girlfriend Dana and their two year child. His parents, successful academics Bill and Liesl are trying to decide whether to retire and if so to where; eldest son Nathan also an academic is being wooed for his writings by those with far right tendencies; middle daughter Susan, married with children who gave up a promising career to be a mum, going through her own quandry of whether to have another child or not; and finally youngest child Jean in her late twenties, a film producer in London having an affair with her married boss. So much that can so wrong in all of these lives. How will it pan out over the course of three days when they are all thrust back into the bosom of the family cauldron.

I found it boring. Nothing happens, there is endless indecisiveness, endless niggling amongst the siblings, endless avoidance of issues. Very few of the decisions you think might be made are actually made. I didn't really like any of the characters, even the two year old child was needy and whiney -  and probably the only one allowed to be. I thought this was going to be a novel about Paul's grand slam experience, but really the tennis was only a background against which to set the story. The city of New York was profoundly more interesting than the story and the characters as they all tried to deal with their various first world problems! Not one of my better reading choices. 

THE WOMEN IN THE CASTLE by Jessica Shattuck

Yet another WWII-and-after novel - why do I keep reading these I ask myself? The themes are always the same, revolving around the horrific treatment of the Jews, gypsies, handicapped, gays, resisters, and anyone else who happens to be in the way by a nation of people  that seems to have been effectively brainwashed by one crazy man. Do we read them because we wonder how such a situation could ever have arisen? Do we wonder how we would respond or behave if our own society was taken over by a bunch of crazies? What would we do if we were the ones persecuted and hunted? There is endless fascination, which of course is why we keep reading.

So here is another novel of ordinary people during and after the war. Three German women are united by the common goal of their husbands who are involved in the failed 1940 plot to  Hitler. All are executed leaving the women widows. One of the women, Marianne von Lingenfels is given the task by her leader husband to locate and protect the widows and families of the other resistors if anything should happen to the men. Marianne takes this role very seriously and after the war makes her way with her three children back to the family home - an old run down Bavarian castle. She does manage to locate Benita and her son Martin, as well as Ania and her two boys. Marianne's war time experience was comparatively good compared to that of Benita and Ania, one ending up as a sex slave to the Russians, her child in an orphanage, and the other married to a Nazi supporter, being rescued from a refugee camp. Together they find sanctuary in the castle, begin to carve out  a life of normality and routine. But the past has a habit of rearing up, throwing lives into chaos, despair and tragedy.

The plot is a good one, the characters are interesting, well thought out and my attention was held all the way. But what makes this book really stand out is the concept of collective guilt of the German nation in what happened. How did people not know what was really going on, how did they get sucked in so easily? How does a man involved in murders of women and children ever deal with this, how can he love another woman and her children? How do people deal with allied propaganda telling them they are guilty?  How does one justify a murder in self-defence? The author is clearly passionate about this subject and theme, and her writing is exceptional as she ferrets beneath the skin and surface of post-war German society. I especially loved her writing in these parts.

All in all, a good story, greatly enhanced by giving the reader plenty more to think about. 

THAT F WORD: GROWING UP FEMINIST IN NEW ZEALAND by Lizzie Marvelly

It seems like Lizzie Marvelly is someone everyone has an opinion on - a tall poppy who is poking sticks at a vast range of issues pertinent in our society not just to the sexual and emotional health of women young and old, but also to those in the LGBTQIA community, as well as to men young and old who she sees need to be reeducated on how to treat women and girls in our society.

I also suspect that there is a feeling there too, of how dare she - a talented privileged middle class girl, wildly successful as an international recording artist who has performed at the Royal Albert Hall, who suddenly turns her nose up at all those who put her there, supported her, bought her music, watched with tears in their eyes as she proudly sang the national anthem. A slip of a girl suddenly coming out with all this feminist zealot stuff, ranting, exclaiming, poking sticks, sweeping the curtains open, on all issues relating to being female in the 21st century. And that of course is her very point - her branding has needed rebranding to expose some much needed truths about the type of society we are currently living in, and is this what we really want for our children. Whether people like it or not, this young woman is challenging us to take a closer look at the community we live, work, socialise and grow our children in.

I knew I had to read this book with a very open mind. I am not the target demographic that she has written for, but I have grown up in and lived in NZ for most of my life, so understand the culture she is talking about and can identify, some of it from personal experience, with much of what she has to say. I also have two daughters in their early 20s, navigating the society that Lizzie is writing about, in fact her whole section on rape culture is something that a young woman we know is currently having to deal with. So extremely topical. How does she do?

Overall I think she has done very well. She is an excellent writer, does a superb job at getting her point and argument across with many illustrations and examples to support what she is saying. For someone so articulate though, with a great command of the language, I was annoyed at the overuse of the F-bomb especially in the first few chapters, and that word is not 'feminist' or 'female'! I see her point - she is very angry. By crikey she is angry, angry at the sexist treatment she has received from boys at school, young men, people of power in the recording industry. And above all the insidious damaging power and reach of the internet. It has to be said that her path to adulthood has not been the norm, and as interesting as it is, I do wonder how relevant or topical it will be to the majority of young women who may start to read this book. I doubt very much the average 29 year old has accumulated such a range of life experience and rage.  I gave the book to a 16 year old girl to read; she has read the first couple of chapters and is already bored with reading about Lizzie's life to date, none of it really relevant to her. I am telling her to keep going, it gets better!

However her story does the set the scene, it being her own personal experience of much of what she writes about in the rest of the book. Once I had got through the first third to half of the book, she really pulled the guns out focusing on how girls and young women in NZ are portrayed in the media, advertising, social media, broadcasting, the perils of having the courage to have an opinion,  the access of impressionable young teens to on-line porn and we aren't talking Playboy or dirty videos, the rape culture so deeply embedded in our society, that old goody abortion, the patriarchy. Not much of it is good I am afraid, it's a scary world out there for young women.

And this is why I think it is an important book for the young women in our families and friends to read. Young women need to know that what they are seeing, reading, listening to, having to deal with in their social/sexual/work lives, is not uncommon, that many others are having similar experiences and reactions to it. This book will normalise the experiences that many many women in New Zealand are/have experienced. There is power in the sharing of information, experiences. There is no big call for unity or protest marches or petitions to Parliament. But there is power in knowing that you aren't alone when unpleasant or bad stuff happens.

My one criticism - the title puts people off.  I work in a book shop - we haven't sold a single copy, even though the book is right at the counter. There is no way people are not seeing it - based on the comments people make about Lizzie, her newspaper column, her personna. I think it is actually that word 'feminist' putting people off, and I asked my 21 year old daughter about this too - she also said the 'feminist' title theme is off putting. Lizzie  touches briefly on what a feminist is in her writings - inconclusive really and not enough to warrant the title. If I was buying a book for my teenage daughter or my young self, I would be much more likely to pick up a book called  'Growing up Female in Aotearoa' or similar rather than 'feminist'.

But don't let this 'judging a book by its cover' put off the young women in your life or yourself for that matter, from reading this. In light of the #metoo movement, the ongoing drive for pay equality, the anxiety and self esteem issues many women have about their image, the savagery and trolling on social media/internet to anything related to female empowerment, I think this book is compulsory reading. Go Lizzie!

THE GREAT ALONE by Kristen Hannah

After reading her previous novel 'The Nightingale', I thought how could a writer possibly top that. Well, this writer has - this is simply outstanding. There are many novels out there telling the stories of the civilian population during and after the war, 'The Nightingale' being a great example. But how many stories do we read of such a wild and untameable area as Alaska? Here is a novel that not only tells a great story, but also increases one's knowledge of the largest and least populated state in the US. The landscape, the rivers, the forests, the frozen lakes, and the never ending taming of the elements are as much a part of the story as the characters in it. I have been to Alaska, in the spring - it was cold but outstandingly beautiful, vast, dramatic, simply stunning. I want to go back, but not in winter......  

Anybody who takes it upon themselves up to sticks and live in this environment has to be both mentally and physically tough, very well resourced, prepared to co-exist with neighbours and in communities of equally tough people and go in with eyes very wide open. Survival of the fittest is taken to a whole new level.

This novel is narrated entirely from the point of view of a teenage girl, Leni, who is 13 when the story begins. It is 1974, she lives in Seattle with her parents Cora and Ernt. Ernt is a returned Vietnam vet. He has returned home a changed man - traumatised, angry, unsettled, prone to violent outbursts, unable to hold down a job. Living with him is not easy. He is gifted a tract of land with a cottage by a fellow soldier who died in Vietnam. You guessed it - it is in Alaska. On a whim, determined that this is going to be his one big opportunity to greatly improve the lives and outcomes of his small family, he announces they are all going to live in Alaska. So off they go. Fortunately they arrive late summer, which does give them some time to organise food, wood, resources, patch up the house before winter settles in. This process allows the reader to meet all the locals who turn up to help the new migrants settle in. What an interesting and diverse bunch they are. And tough

We are constantly told and warned as readers, how wild and hard the winters are. Not just the cold, but that it is dark for nearly 24 hours, there is no TV, unless you have a snow machine you are stuck in your little house with only each other for company, going outside is always a risk due to the unpredictability of the weather. Everyone goes a little stir crazy especially those already unbalanced in some way as Ernt is.

Leni's story takes place over some 15 years during which her spirit is always being challenged in some way, but as in 'The Nightingale', resilience and internal human strength shine through. Life in Alaska is brutal, not just the environment but also within the family as each of Cora, Ernt and Leni are constantly tested. It is not always an easy read - it could be very confronting for some, but wow, is it worth it. I still want to go back to Alaska, nothing has changed.

A WELL BEHAVED WOMAN by Therese Anne Fowler

Such a dreary cover for a woman extraordinary in her time. In this densely packed, but never overwhelming book of biographical fiction, the author has been voracious in her research to tell the story of Alva Vanderbilt Belmont. A Google search of Alva will label her as either an American socialite or an American suffragette, but she was much more than this - an architect, a campaigner for equal rights for women, and a social activist to both empower and educate women in hygiene, family health, reproduction and contraception. History of the time being generally written by men, it is hardly surprising that she received a lot of bad press, labelled a social climber, shrewish, aggressive, domineering - you get the picture. And she probably was all those things because she had to be to be heard, but she was also a most interesting woman who determined from a young age that she was going to be in charge of her own life.

Born into a highly respectable but impoverished family, by the time she was in her early 20s in late 1870s, she knew she had to marry well to have any hope of saving herself and her family from a life of poverty. She used her good name and breeding to land herself the prize of a young man from the very wealthy but socially inferior Vanderbilt family. The higher echelons of New York society never being an easy nut to crack, this marriage gave the Vanderbilt family its much needed entry into the right crowd, with Alva being the director of proceedings.  From that point on Alva was unstoppable. Known for having a manner well suited to her social standing that upset many people, she was also well known for her energy, her intelligence, strong opinions and willingness to challenge the tightly defined conventions of the day.  She had three children, successfully divorced her unfaithful husband in a time when divorce was a social suicide, remarried for love, and never stopped championing the rights of women and children. 

This is a great read, never boring, and gives a fascinating insight into a time and city when enormous wealth was being made by those willing to take risks in the very new country of America. And how appropriate to read about such a woman in this year of celebrating 125 years of  the first country in the world to give women the vote, and it wasn't the US, it was New Zealand - not a fake news in sight. 

DANCING BEARS by Witold Szablowski (Translated from Polish)

The full title for this most interesting and curious book is Dancing Bears: True Stories of People Held Captive to Old Ways of Life in Newly Free Societies. The author is Polish, so is himself from one of the very societies that in recent decades has gone from being Communist controlled to being 'newly free' - democratic, capitalist. The world he was born into has gone from one where fear, compliance, blind obedience in thought, word and action has morphed into one where freedom in thought, action and deed is the name of the game. But not everyone adapts quickly, easily or even willingly to the new way of doing things. This is a really interesting, informative and easy book to read.

The author has taken a very sensitive and empathetic journey through some of the recently communist countries to see just how people and communities have coped with these upheavals. I don't know how he chose the places he has  - it is a most diverse bunch. He begins his narrative in Bulgaria. Since joining the EU, Bulgarian gypsies are no longer allowed to keep bears and use them for their earning capacity as entertainers. For such families, training and keeping bears is all they have ever known for generations - the transition has not been easy, they mourn the old days. Despite the blatant cruelty to the bear!

The author goes to Cuba where the death of Castro has left considerable uncertainty over what comes next. The locals are fearful of losing the excellent health care and education systems that have been in place under Castro for 50+ years. In the Ukraine he is involved in smuggling a car across the border; he is in Kosovo as it declares independence from Serbia's' authoritarian rule; he is bemused by the love and adoration for Stalin in his native Georgia. In London's Victoria Station he finds an old Polish woman, homeless, who lives in the station on donations, receives a pension in Poland, but prefers life in London. Odd.

It is a clever title - not only is it the end of the dancing bears in Bulgaria, symbolising new beginnings, but it also refers to many of the people of these countries and communities who are struggling with the notion of independence, not being under the authoritarian rule of communist doctrine. For the bears, even though they are now 'free' from living in captivity, are totally incapable of living in the wild, so now live in sanctuaries. Their 'training' is so deeply ingrained in them, that even though they don't have to, they still get up on their hind legs and dance when they see human beings. Such is the lot of many of the people - they can't go back to what they know, and they are unable to navigate the new present. 

THE SEVENTH CROSS by Anna Seghers (Translated from German)

First published in the US in 1942, this novel was an abridged version of the original written by German born Jewish woman Anna Seghers. Her story of escape from Germany to France in 1933, then again from France in 1940 to Mexico and finally to America is worthy of a book in itself. As is the miracle of survival of the manuscript. Of four copies she made only one made it to publication in the US, and even then it was posted from France, the others destroyed or disappeared.  In 1944 a film starring Spencer Tracy was one of the few movies of the era to deal with a European concentration camp.

This latest publishing of the novel is the first unabridged version in English. As we continue to be deluged with both fiction and non-fiction, movies, TV series about the war, the Holocaust, the horrific and terrible cost, pain and loss of everything, this novel remains as relevant and important as it was 70 plus years ago.

George Heisler is prisoner in a concentration camp near a town in Germany. Like the author, George is a communist, hence his imprisonment. Along with six others, one day he escapes. This is the story of that escape, how the others are caught, how George evades capture, how he learns who to trust, who not to trust, how living on your wits is almost fatal work. The seven crosses are a creation of the ruthless and sadistic camp commander. As each prisoner is caught he is dragged back to the camp and tied to the cross erected for the purpose. Day after day the seventh cross remains empty.

Over the course of a very desperate week George returns to the town he came from - Mainz, where he has both good and bad luck in getting help for his continuing evasion from the Gestapo and SS. For the risk lies that he will be betrayed by any one of the people he meets, or that his contacts are in turn betrayed, or make an error that puts them and all their families at risk. It is a perilous world. But as we know, us humans can be capable of great risk taking for another person, and great acts of kindness. That George makes any progress at all is a miracle, but the biggest miracle is what he discovers about himself.

This novel is exquisitely written in its detail of daily life for the average German over this time. There is much putting the head in the sand amongst the citizens, the constant worry that ears are listening and possibly misinterpreting conversations, asides, who one is seen with. The SA, SS, Gestapo and Hitler Youth are everywhere, there is endless fear that one may put a foot wrong. That George successfully evades all this is marvellous, but right up till the very last page it could all go wrong.

This is neither a hard read nor an easy read. It is very detailed in the minutiae of daily life, there are a lot of characters, most peripheral to the actual plot which makes it hard to remind oneself as to why they are there! A list at the beginning is not really long enough or detailed enough about all the characters. It is a small issue, as the story of George is really what carries the whole thing along. It would be great to see a remake of the 1944 movie to coincide with the republication of the novel.


THE BOOK-SHOP OF THE BROKEN HEARTED by Robert Hillman

It is 1968, in Hometown, central Victoria. Not a lot happens here in this farming/rural community. The population is stable, everyone knows everyone else's business, families have lived here, either in town or on the farms for some generations. Newcomers are a curious and suspicious phenomenon. Tom Hope farms the land his uncle left him. It is typical Aussie farm land - dry, dusty, sparse, requiring hard work and dedication. He hasn't had much luck in the love department, with his wife Trudy leaving him, returning with a baby (not Tom's), leaving him with baby Peter, then returning a few years later to claim him for good. Tom is broken hearted. A life of continuous disappointment and loss.

Hannah Babel is Hungarian, a survivor of Auschwitz, the apocalypse that was post war Europe, and the anti communist uprising in Budapest in 1956. She also is broken hearted, having lost two husbands and her young son. Not to mention the rest of her family. Unlike Tom she is absolutely unable to internalise any of her pain, heartbreak, loss, but she has the most amazing spirit and energy. Having arrived in Hometown she is determined this is going to be her new beginning - she is going to open a book shop and will not rest until she has sold 'twenty- five thousand, the number of books burnt in Berlin on May 10th, 1933'.  Unsurprisingly the likes of Hannah has never been seen in Hometown - she is a source of much intrigue, gossip, some cattiness, and curiosity.  She enlists Tom to help her fit out the shop, a love affair blossoms, things look to be on the up for Tom and Hannah much to the amusement of the locals.

All good things take time and with wild differences between these two, derailment is not far away. The day comes when the deep grief that Hannah suffered on the loss of her son confronts her with the need for young Peter to return to Tom's care. What will she do? What will Tom do? Such is the skill of the author that you sympathise and empathise with both Tom and Hannah. And as for Peter....  The dilemma - both emotionally and morally - is so delicately handled, so carefully revealed and explained that you keep reading because you really have no idea how it is all going to work out. Although you secretly expect that is will be ok in the end.....

I read this over a wet weekend, it is heart breaking, but as with so much of the fiction that has come out of the stories of WWII, it is full of hope, determination, and joy. Both Tom and Hannah are wonderful characters, very real, flawed, disagreeable, at odds with each other - imagine laconic rural Aussie farmer with firebrand Holocaust survivor. I hope there is a movie on the cards somewhere. 

WARLIGHT by Michael Ondaatje

Oh, how I loved this. It wouldn't really matter what the story line was as the writing is so exquisite, expressive and wonderful. 'The English Patient' is one of my all time favourites, expectations are always nervously high for subsequent novels, but you can rest easy, as seen by its long-list nomination for this year's Man Booker Prize. 

The title refers to the half light, the dimness, twilight, uncertain and slightly wild place that London was during the war years, and after. Lives lost, people displaced, lives turned upside down. In 1945 Nathaniel is 14 years old and his sister Rachel is 16. They live with their parents in a house in a street in London. One day the parents announce that they are going away to live in Singapore for a period of time for the father's work. The two children would be left in the care of a guardian. The shock and disbelief never really goes away for either Rachel and Nathaniel, this desertion at the core of their psyche for at least the duration of the novel, and probably beyond. The desertion turns into a form of betrayal when the two discover that their mother never actually left, but where she did go remains a mystery. 

Their guardian, a man they call The Moth, on other hand, is a most interesting character, as are the various other strange assortment of people who become regular visitors in the family home. The Darter, Marsh Felon, Olive Lawrence - who are these people, what do they have to do with the absent parents? Nathaniel forms a particularly strong attachment to The Darter, accompanying him on various treks around London in the dead of night, as deliveries are made, quiet conversations are held. Although parentless, Nathaniel and Rachel find themselves not really parentless after all. 

The descriptions of London at this time are outstanding, as is the view of a young boy at the strange life he is finding himself in. He is half adult/half child, the writing capturing perfectly this half formed world that teenagers live in.

The years pass, the children become adults, the secrets of these years are discovered. Which I will not reveal! Suffice to say that not only is the story unusual, wonderful and in its own way satisfying, it is the writing, the characters, the how and why of things that happen that is quite simply divine. The author is a genius of the English language. I will be buying my own copy, and it will join 'The English Patient' on my shelf. 

SODDEN DOWNSTREAM by Brannavan Gnanalingam

Shortlisted for the 2018 Ockham NZ Book Awards in the Fiction category, this little book of 178 pages is simply amazing. I read it in one wet Sunday afternoon, could not put it down, it touched me deeply from a humanity point of view, the random kindness of strangers, and probably a realistic look at what life is like for those at the bottom of the economic heap - the refugee -  displaced, damaged, desperately poor, broken.

Sita is a Sri Lankan refugee, living in a state housing flat in Naenae, in the Hutt Valley with her out of work husband who had migrated to NZ a couple of years before civil war ripped Sri Lanka apart. They have a 9 year old son who was only a baby when the war happened. Although it is never said, I expect he is a deeply traumatised child, with nothing ever really done to fully address what he and his mother went through. Sita has a cleaning job, working as part of a group cleaning Wellington's office buildings in the evenings through to the early hours. As you would expect the pay, the conditions, the abysmal attitude of her employer, the drudgery is very grim. The family lives a hand to mouth existence, unable to earn more than a certain amount for fear of having their benefit reduced.

So topical now with the extreme weathers around the world, a storm is on its way to torment Wellington with wind, record rainfall, cold. Sita has to go to work, she has no choice, but the trains aren't going, the Hutt road and roads in Petone are flooded, cars are stranded, but she has to get there. This is the story of that journey, that 24 hours. How is she going to get there? Well, what are our legs and feet for - but to walk. And so she does.

It could almost be comical and whimsical in its purpose - what crazy person is going to walk to Wellington in the dark, in the wet? It really is quite mad. But she has no choice, this is what she must do. She has nothing else, only this job. This book is the story of her walk to work, those she meets, those who help, those who are, in different ways, as desperate as she is. We learn the story of how she came to New Zealand, the war, the violence, the horror inflicted upon civilians as their world is ripped apart and destroyed. As difficult as this day may seem to us in our warm, comfortable little world, I expect for Sita it never comes close to what she has gone through to get to this point, and this is probably what drives her on in her quest to make it to her work.

I loved reading about the setting of Naenae and Lower Hutt, very, very familiar to me, having grown up there. I commuted from the very railway stations Sita uses for some years as a student and city worker, and know the streets very well, a bicycle being my only other means of transport for some years.  The author writes brilliantly about Lower Hutt: I can see the streets, the houses, the railway line, feel the damp, the cold, the slick wet roads chocka block with cars. Most of all I loved the humanity in this book, those who never stop trying to make a day better for others less fortunate, who go out of their way to help, and be kind.


MAZARINE by Charlotte Grimshaw

It is hard to pin down exactly what sort of novel this is. It could be a thriller-mystery; it could be a change of life (ie menopausal) story; it could be a tale of sexual identity; it could be how to fulfil one's writing self; it could be a middle aged OE.  In fact it could be a whole host of things. This is actually why I find it confusing, at times directionless, and because of its abrupt and strangely dissatisfying end, really not very enjoyable at all. Aside from that and in a much more positive light, the author's writing as per usual is outstanding. Her insight into the minds of her characters, their motivations, flaws, process of decision making is lovely to read.

Frances lives in Auckland, she is the mother of Maya who is currently on her OE with her boyfriend Joe. They are based in London, and like thousands of young NZers before them, they travel regularly around Europe, the UK, living on the smell of an oily rag. Like their parents back in little old NZ, Frances frets and worries about her only child, daily scanning Facebook and emails for updates on her daughter's life.  Frances herself is in a state of flux. She is a writer of sorts, and is keen to get started on a thriller novel. Her long term relationship with possibly unstable Nick (or is it Frances who is the unstable one) has recently finished, she has little to do with her ex husband who is Maya's father. Suddenly Maya is no longer communicating on social media, emails to her go unanswered. Frances, convinced she is being stalked by Nick, and wanting to find out where her daughter could be, flees to a motel in Hamilton, intending to also track down Joe's mother, Mazarine.

And the confusion now begins to set in. The narrative could go in any direction as Frances travels to London, Paris, London, Buenos Aires, Auckland. Sometimes Mazarine is there, sometimes she isn't. Nick randomly appears in London, Paris. Is Frances going mad? Does she even know who she is, is she even real? Is Mazarine even real or just another figment of Frances' imagination? Is her daughter in danger or not? What is on the tiny USB stick she is given by the widow of a man who has unexpectedly died? Hardly surprising that I became impatient with this twisting and turning. Being a Charlotte fan, I kept reading in the hope that it would all come together into some devastating and/or amazing conclusion. But no, Frances continues her meandering, her indecisiveness, her obsession with Mazarine. By the end of the book nothing has changed from the beginning except that Frances has travelled, has emptied her bank account, and the disappearance of Maya has been resolved. Disappointing. 

THE PRAGUE SONATA by Bradford Morrow

So much to love in this novel - music, a mystery, a chase, some unpleasant people with suspicious motives, beautiful setting, great writing. But also way too long. Never mind, it is still a really good read, very easy to immerse yourself in, and now Prague has moved to the top of my 'go to places before I die' list.

It is  the year 2000, a new millennium. Meta Taverner is a musicologist in New York. Her very promising concert pianist career was cut short by an accident, taking her down the academic path rather than that of performance. She loves her work, loves music, loves her city, living with lawyer boyfriend Jonathon. In a meeting with Irena, an elderly Czech woman, she is given the middle section of a piano sonata that had been entrusted to her by Irena's best friend Otylie as the Nazis invaded Prague in 1939. Otylie herself fled Prague with first part of the sonata, the third part she gave to her husband Jakub. In this way, she thought at least some of the sonata would survive the war and whatever else lay beyond. Irena wants Meta to reunite, if at all possible, the entire sonata and ensure its future safety.

Meta immediately realises she is holding something very rare and precious from the late 18th century. She doesn't know who the composer is but she knows that this is very special. Her life takes on a sudden and most unexpected direction as she literally drops everything and heads off to Prague to do whatever she can to find the other two parts and, like looking for a needle in a haystack, unite the entire sonata.

This is a fabulous yarn, notwithstanding it being too long. Some reviews are critical of how it doesn't move easily between the present and the past, but I didn't find this a problem at all. You do have to suspend belief just a bit - some pretty amazing coincidences! But it's a story, a novel, so we go along with it all. Prague sounds like the most beautiful place, with its own appalling history of revolution and suppression. And yet throughout people still find time for beautiful music, connections and relationships. A chunk of the story is set in Texas, so vastly different from Prague, and yet the writing is so vivid of the huge open spaces, the heat, the dust, the small towns. If you love music and history, this is for you.

SEE YOU IN SEPTEMBER by Charity Norman

This terrific novel has been shortlisted for the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel of 2018 and it is a cracker. Just imagine sending your child off to the other side of the world for a 3 month backpacking trip, and five long years pass before you see her again. We don't hear much about cults nowadays, although anyone over the age of 45 will know about the Moonies, the mass suicide of the Jonestown cult, Waco, Charles Manson. They all lured people, mostly young, alone, down on their luck, by well proven mind control methods, into their closed and oppressive worlds.

And this is what happens to young Cassy Howells, travelling for three months around New Zealand with her boyfriend Hamish. See you in September is the last thing she calls out to her parents and sister as she farewells them at Heathrow Airport in June. She and Hamish break up suddenly and dramatically while trying to hitch hike to Taupo. Cassy spontaneously gets into a van full of friendly and welcoming young people and she is gone. Just like that. The community she finds herself in is called Gethsemane, established on an island in Lake Tarawera. Spooky setting, spooky place. What is so clever and very scary  about this novel is how quickly and easily Cassy is manipulated into being a fully immersed and functioning member of Gethsemane, under the control of the charismatic Justin Calvin.

Meanwhile back in England, her parents, sister and friends are becoming increasingly alarmed about the lack of contact and news from Cassy. September comes and goes, no Cassy... months and years pass... the impact of her absence takes a horrible toll on the family. Cassy herself knows there are things wrong with how she is living her life, but is unable to find a clear space in her head to deal with it. Time however is beginning to run out for both Cassy, her Gethsemane family and her England family.

I couldn't put this down, read the whole thing in about two days. It is excellent. With a child living on the other side of the world, I constantly worry and wonder how she is, who her friends are, the influences surrounding her. I can't even begin to imagine the terror, fear and heartbreak I would experience as a parent going through what Cassy's parents went through. 

THE LOST FLOWERS OF ALICE HART by Holly Ringland

The age old conundrum - can you really judge a book by its cover? Can such a divine cover reveal a story to match the colour, the ornateness and even the magic of the title? In this case it sure can! Before getting onto the story, this is a lovely book to simply hold and flip through as it is generously sprinkled with drawings of flowers, every chapter and there are thirty of them, headed with a different, a little about it, a drawing, and it's meaning. I am not entirely sure if all the plants are strictly native to Australia, where the novel is set, but such a lovely device contributes to this being very much a novel of Australia, its landscape and people. So much to say even before starting on the story!

When we begin, Alice is nine years old, living with her parents on what I am guessing is a rural property. Her father is an extremely violent man, of whom she is terrified. Her mother is a gentle loving woman, who adores her garden, teaching Alice about the plants, and where she first learns the language of flowers. A terrible tragedy results in her moving to live with her grandmother Agnes whom she has never met before. Agnes lives on a flower farm, started by her grandmother, and of which she is now the owner and custodian. Over the years she has taken in many women escaping from their violent and tragic lives, who live and work on the farm. They are called the Flowers. It takes some time for Alice to find her feet and herself in this environment, but over the years she does, immersed in the beauty of flowers, the cycle of the seasons, the love and good will surrounding her. But always at the root of her soul is the horrific loss of her parents, and her previous life.

A betrayal when she is in her early 20s sends her a long way away from this life, until she ends up in the Australian desert at a National Park, picking up the pieces of her life and starting again. Nothing ever goes smoothly for poor Alice Hart however....., although there are always flowers and plants to ground her.

It seems to me there are two types of people - victims and survivors. Alice is definitely a victim due to her childhood traumas, and she spends her whole life trying to get to grips with it, move on, and survive. We know that people keep deep traumas to themselves, and often we know nothing about what has gone on in the lives of people we meet, like, but have difficulty understanding how they are wired. This story, I would like to think, encourages us all to be more tolerant and accepting of those who may deal with life differently from how we may do it. This story is full of damaged souls, and yet, mostly, they are all trying to live the best life they can, getting through the daily problems. Be kind people, to one another, give flowers and appreciate the beauty around us.





MADRID IN DECEMBER by CJ Sansom

After reading this excellent novel, I think the Spanish Civil War must be one of the most pointless wars in recent history. There were no winners at all, neither the extreme left nor the extreme right contributed anything to the future prosperity or political stability of this country and its people. I know nothing about the civil war really - thinking that Franco was the ultimate evil which he was, but also growing up believing that the Republicans/Communists were the good guys. People like Hemmingway both reporting and fictionalising his experience of the war. And yet despite their noble motivations they really were no better than the fascists, the two extremes in ideology both losers.

This novel is about that - the extremes in ideology, how there are no winners and those who lose the most are the civilians, the average worker, small business owner, the families, the middle and working classes, the old people, the young. Always the tragedy of any war. Into this appalling mess come four  young English people. Harry, Sandy and Bernie first meet at school, an English public school. On leaving school their paths diverge. Harry becomes an academic, interrupted by his army stint resulting in evacuation from Dunkirk; Bernie is a communist and goes to Spain to fight for freedom; Sandy is out for himself, always looking for best way to make a quick buck, completely unethical. Then there is Barbara, a Red Cross nurse who is linked to all three. Her lover Bernie goes missing, she grieves for years until she sees a chance to find out what really happened to him. Harry is recruited to be a spy and is sent to Madrid to find out what his old school friend Sandy is up to. Sandy happens to be living with Barbara. Nothing is what it seems, and no one is who they seem. Classic spy stuff, with Harry the mild mannered slightly out of his depth sleuth attempting to make sense of all that is going on around him.

I loved this. It is an excellent story, with great characters facing many challenges. The history is fantastic, I learnt so much about a terrible time in our recent history, I admire the spirit and courage of the Spanish and this novel certainly shows this. It has been marketed as a thriller, but it moves too slowly to be a thriller. Don't let this stop you from reading it. If you have been to Spain, spent any time there, you will love this.