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. 

THE GODFATHER by Mario Puzo

How I love revisiting old favourites. And when the film of the book is also in your top 10 - even better. The story is so well known there is no point in detailing that. But one can't help compare the film with the book, the book with the film, how some parts of the book are better than the film, and vice versa. The beheaded horse in the bed is one of those images that is forever associated with the movie, so visual, so graphic, so horrific. And yet I found the way this whole scenario was written about -  the lead up to it, the personalities involved, the slow applying of the screws, the inevitability of what was going to happen - far more frightening and evocative on the page than it is on the screen. I also loved how Vito Corleone's early life in Sicily, his escape to New York and the beginnings of the family powerhouse are narrated and developed. How Vito and then in turn Michael put the Family before everything else, how they come to this realisation and then act on it. The movies and the book are absolutely interchangeable with each other. Perfection. 

THE PRISONER OF GUANTANAMO by Dan Fesperman

This is a tightly held, yet also a slow burner of a thriller starring a manly hero called Rever Fatk. Falk has had a chequered work history as have most of these thriller type heroes, so full of cliched personality faults, troubled relationships, mysterious friends and ex partners. But still a riveting read, our hero trying to uncover corruption, save lives, including his own, dealing with betrayal, turn coats and turn abouts. Top reading in other words.

The setting is new! Guantanamo Bay detention camp at the US Guantanamo Navel Base on the coast of Cuba. An overload of plot devices before the story has even started! Falk is an interrogator for the FBI, interrogating prisoners taken in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen in the US's relentless pursuit of terrorists and undesirables. The base is  an island hot bed of gossip, paranoia, the Cubans just around the corner. The discovery of the body of a US Marine on the Cuban side of things throws the army base into complete turmoil, reaching far up into the echelons of the FBI, CIA and the Pentagon. Flak is unwittingly drawn into the mess when he is put in charge of investigating the death of the soldier. He himself becomes a target, and he has to reach deep into himself to save himself and somehow still expose the secrets and coverups.Such vivid and descriptive writing of the geography of the island, the access, the turbulent seas around it, how such an environment affects the people on the base.  I have no desire to go to Guantanamo - bleak, uninviting where many horrible things happen in secret. Scary. 

BELONG TO ME by Marisa de los Santos

Interesting take on familiar themes of dislocated families, children seeking absent/unknown parent. The child is boy genius 13 year old Dev. His solo mum Lake moves the two of them to a town a long way from San Francisco. Also recently moved to the town are Cornelia and Teo, escaping the stress and pressure of New York City. The third narrator is Piper, who is a bit like a Queen Bee and take an instant dislike to Cornelia. She is also very involved in the care of her best friend Elizabeth who is dying. So interesting plot, some characters more believable than others, but overall it was too long and I don"t rate it highly.

LULLABY by Leila Slimani

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

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

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

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

A MAN CALLED OVE by Fredrik Backman

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

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

THE WISH CHILD by Catherine Chidgey

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

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

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

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

NEVER LET ME GO by Kazuo Ishiguro

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

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

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

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

THE SIXTEEN TREES OF THE SOMME by Lars Mytting

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

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

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

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

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

MY NAME IS NOBODY by Matthew Richardson

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

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

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

PACHINKO by Min Jin Lee

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

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

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

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

PERSONAL HISTORY by Katharine Graham

The movie 'The Post' with Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks depicted how The Washington Post newspaper won the right of free speech competition with Richard Nixon's government of the early 1970s. This set the scene the scene for arguably the Post's most successful coup ever, the uncovering of the Watergate scandal which resulted in the impeachment of Nixon, retold in the movie 'All the President's Men'.

At the helm of the paper during these turbulent times was Katharine Graham, there really only by virtue of being the daughter of the man who bought the paper way back in 1933, and the wife of the man, Phil Graham,  who took over from his father-in-law. The reins were  inherited by Katharine on her husband's suicide in 1963. She stood down as publisher in 1979, her son, then great niece in charge until 2014 when it was was sold to Jeff Bezos of Amazon fame.

There was really nothing remarkable about Katharine, a very privileged, well educated young woman, who had been brought up to believe that a woman's place was in the home, tending to her husband and children, putting her own needs and thoughts etc second to those around her. From time to time she had dabbled in a bit of journalism, writing the odd column for the paper, but certainly no positions of management, leadership or decision making. Being thrust into the top dog role in 1963 at the age of 46, recently widowed in horrible circumstances, four children, was more than a baptism by fire. She had plenty of help of course: this book is riddled with Post staff at all levels of the organisation whose advice, guidance, and decision making probably contributed more to the survival and success of the paper than her own management did, but flourish indeed it did.

This is her story, all 700 pages of it, published in 1997 when she was 80 years old. And what a story it is. It is incredibly long; there are way too many names - harsher critics than me call it name dropping, they also call her a spoiled ineffective figurehead; I skim read much of the management stuff of the paper, her conflicts with editors, managers, labour issues. But as a story of the transformation a woman of her time made from being a wife/mother to being a person of influence and opinion in a very male-dominated world is marvellous, and what's more at a time when the feminist movement was beginning to hit its stride. Yes, there were set backs; yes, she was regularly vilified, parodied and insulted; yes, there were times she wanted to throw it all away. But she didn't and in her quiet, dignified and polite way (as she tells it), she ends up being a stayer. The paper won 10 of its 47 Pulitzer Prizes on her watch.

Much of this book is outdated now, but not only does it tell Mrs Graham's own personal story, it also chronicles much of America's social, economic and political history during the middle section of the last century. Well worth a read, and ties in very nicely with  the two movies 'The Post', and 'All the President's Men'.