Book Review: The Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah

Available at bookstores nationwide.cv_the_nightingale

War makes heroes out of ordinary people; we already know that this is so. There have been many stories, both fiction and non-fiction, about men who have waged terrible battles, overcome horrors and made tremendous sacrifices in the name of their countries and their families. Less often told are the stories of the women who didn’t go away to war but who stayed home and suffered through unspeakable terrors of their own, whilst trying to raise children and keep families together.

“In wars, there are battles and skirmishes. … But our men will never let the Germans win. We will never give up. … But we have a part to play, too; those of us left behind. … We have to keep on with our lives so our fathers and brothers and husbands have lives to come home to…”.

Life in occupied France during World War Two was brutal. With their husbands and fathers away, either fighting or imprisoned, the women were left to cope as best they could. The Nightingale is a story of two such women; sisters Vianne and Isabelle. When their mother died, the girls were all but abandoned by their grief-stricken, hard-hearted father. Vianne made a new life for herself in the countryside. But now the war finds her as a mother and wife, struggling to carry on as best she can while her husband is away at war in Germany and her home plays host to billeted German soldiers. The younger and bolder Isabelle, having been “invited to leave” yet another school for bad behaviour, is sent away from Paris by her father as the Germans descend on the city. The sisters each make some incredibly tough decisions about how to survive the war.

This is a beautiful and, at times, harrowing story about love and loss. It’s impossible to know just what sort of decisions we might make ourselves to save our families and our country. This is not a book to be read without a box of tissues at hand.

Even more haunting is that the book was inspired by accounts the author had read about some incredible women and their role in the French Resistance during World War Two.

This is not a book I will forget easily. On ANZAC day this year, as we remember the brave young men who died for their countries at Gallipoli a century ago and the soldiers who have fought for us in too many other wars, I will also be quietly remembering all of the women who were left behind and who faced their own private battles.

Reviewed by Tiffany Matsis

The Nightingale
by Kristin Hannah
Published by Macmillan
ISBN 9781447283058

Book Review: The Water Diviner, by Andrew Anastasios and Meaghan Wilson-Anastasios

Available in bookstores nationwide.

cv_the_water_divinerThis book has been released to coincide with the release of the movie by the same name. It is not the book that the movie is based on, but rather unusually, this book came after the movie, and is based directly on the script. I was interested in how this would pan out in terms of a quality book and was not at all disappointed. I have never read a script, but at times, this book reads as I imagine a script might. The narrator is direct and descriptive in the manner one assumes a movie director might be. Especially when the main characters are being introduced and the scenes are set. For example, when we first meet one of the central characters, Ayshe, this is how she is introduced:

“Ayshe swings a wicker carpet beater in a fury. Decades of accumulated dirt explode in smoky clouds from the weathered Baluch carpet, which is suspended over a clothesline in the hotel courtyard. She whacks at it with impotent rage, tears of frustration cutting runnels through the dust that has settled on her cheeks. Finally, she steps back from the rug, her anger beginning to abate.”

This is achieved in part because the author of the book was in fact one of the scriptwriters. I think this immediacy of storytelling, and detailed description of the settings really works. I hope it works as well in the movie, which I am keen to see. You may have seen the trailers, or indeed, the movie: it’s about an Australian man, Connor played by Russel Crowe, who fuelled with grief travels to Gallipoli to find his sons who have not returned from the World War I. Connor is a successful water diviner who has faith that his ability to find water beneath the dry Australian hinterland will help him find his sons amid the fields of slain young men in Turkey.

Connor faces his own demons, and has to win a battle with those, whilst at the same time overcoming his own perception of the Turks as the enemy. This book is inspired by a true story and casts a different perspective on the horrid events where our own ANZAC troops perished. It’s a balanced account, that reveals the personal loss and cultural legacy that two peripheral players in World War I faced. The impact of such devastation on countries that had no quarrel with each other, yet they killed each other’s sons, cannot be overstated.

This is a well-crafted and memorable story. And one that needed to be told.

Reviewed by Gillian Torckler

The Water Diviner
by Andrew Anastasios and Meaghan Wilson-Anastasios
Published by Pan Australia
ISBN 9781743534281

Book Review: The Mirror World of Melody Black, by Gavin Extence

cv_the_mirror_world_of_melody_blackAvailable in bookstores nationwide on 12 March 2015.

This is a tale of depression, specifically manic depression. It is narrated through the eyes of Abby, a mid-20s freelance writer, who suffers from episodes of mania and depression. Her latest episode is triggered by the discovery of neighbour, Simon, dead in his flat. Her lack of emotive response affects her greatly and she struggles to seek greater understanding of her own mind.

Abby is a very easy protagonist to connect with. She is candidly honest and direct. Her boyfriend, Beck, is lovely, but he struggles to cope with her emotional rollercoaster. Also joining the cast is the delightfully vindictive poet, Miranda Frost; the supportive psychiatrist Dr Barbara (if I ever need treatment, I want someone like her). And, of course, the Melody Black of the title, a teenager with whom Abby strikes up a friendship whilst she is undergoing treatment.

The plot is compelling, hooking me in until time rolled away from under me and I had to force myself to set it down. It also gives great insight into how a depressed (and manic) person both feels and thinks. This book is written with the authenticity of someone who has first-hand experience and who has put a great deal of thought, study and consideration into his tale. It is at times painful, yet almost darkly humorous – especially some of Abby’s more manic exploits – other times heart-breaking, poignant and moving.

I would urge everyone who has a friend or relative diagnosed with depression to read this book– if you cannot identify with Abby, than you will certainly connect with Beck. A memorable and haunting read.

The Mirror World of Melody Black
by Gavin Extence
Published by Hodder & Stoughton
ISBN 9781444764628

Book Review: The Umbrella, by Ingrid & Dieter Schubert

Available in bookstores nationwide.

cv_the_umbrellaA black terrier and a cat venture out on a windy autumn evening and find a bright red umbrella at the end of the garden. When the terrier opens the umbrella he is immediately swept above his house in a flurry of leaves. With that begins the great wordless adventure book by Ingrid and Dieter Schubert. The Schuberts were born in Germany and together have created dozens of books for children. They are among the most famous illustrators in The Netherlands.

Originally published in The Netherlands in 2010, The Umbrella takes its reader on a whirlwind journey. We see the terrier dancing along the clouds before the umbrella sails him across continents and oceans. The little dog’s journey is moved along in a series of inventive ways: an elephant shoots him into the air; he sails the umbrella on a raging sea; he rises from the ocean on a sperm whale’s spout. After entering a rainforest that is alive with spider monkeys he is attacked by a group of spear-wielding villagers. Lucky for the dog, he’s escapes into the air with a pelican, although one spear does lodge itself in the umbrella. The pelican flies him to the Arctic, and finally, the tired dog sails home on a cloud of bats. Arriving back in the garden the cat folds away the umbrella and the terrier looks proud and pleased.

As with the best wordless books, the illustrations contain many details for children to discover over multiple readings. The illustrations in The Umbrella are beautiful – each page is a large format, double spread watercolour. The expressions of the animal characters are delightful, and I defy any reader not to smile at the sight of a particular baby polar bear. Such detailed illustrations allow both parents and children to flex their imaginations. For example, when the dog skips across the sky the background clouds form animal shapes. On another page a child will be surprised by the large snake hiding among a group of alligators! How did the snake get there? What’s her story? Some pages also give hints of what will come next. As the dog swims with an octopus and tropical fish we see the whale rising up beneath him. The illustrations often take different perspectives: sometimes the dog is a speck in sky, whereas in others he’s grinning in the foreground.

The Umbrella will delight animal lovers as the pages contain pink flamingoes, giraffes, hippos, flying fish, seals, arctic rabbits, polar bears and much more. After bringing the book home, my animal obsessed pre-schooler has read it every day, and often by himself. The only off-key moment is when the villagers throw their spears at the dog. This old fashioned depiction of tribal culture – a flashback to Indiana Jones – doesn’t belong in what is essentially a sweet tale of travel and serendipity.

As with other Book Island wordless books such as Follow the Firefly / Run Rabbit Run by Bernardo Carvalho, The Umbrella allows children to create their own story. In this way, the book encourages imagination and independent engagement by children who are still tentative about reading. It’s a genuine gem.

Reviewed by Sarah Jane Barnett

The Umbrella
by Ingrid & Dieter Schubert
Published by Book Island, 2015
ISBN 9780994109859

Book Review: The Mime Order, by Samantha Shannon

Available in bookstores nationwide.

I acv_the_mime_orderm a fan of this series, which began this time last year with The Bone Season, and carries on now with The Mime Order. The alternate universe that Samantha Shannon began building in The Bone Season comes to fruition in this, the second part of a seven-book series.

First – if you haven’t yet read it, do read The Bone Season first. This book is certainly not one of those part-of-a-series-but-stands-alone deals – everything about the first book is integral to building the action in the second book, which is centered on the concept of freedom.

Our heroine, Paige ‘The Pale Dreamer’ Mahoney is rejoined as she successfully (though not without drama) leads a group of sighted humans out of the prison-city of Sheol I, based in old Oxford. These humans each have different paranormal gifts, one of the most highly-regarded of which is Paige’s gift, as a dreamwalker. Sighted humans are deemed unnatural by the order of Scion, which is the name that London goes. Scion began after the reign of Edward VII, who was blamed for opening the door to the unnaturals through a seance gone wrong.

I can understand why fantasy writers are absolutely fascinated with the idea of London having hidden depths. With that much history, and that many ancient buildings, it is a city begging to have alternative worlds built into it. Shannon has built this world very expertly. There are machinations within machinations, with new discoveries about how Scion works within the underworld and at a higher level, every page you turn. These details do not overwhelm the plot, butadd to them, as with any good world-building. I feel like this book is so good due to a really great partnership between Shannon and her editors. As with any good editor, you can’t see them, but you can feel their influence.

Paige is a wanted criminal, her face on every screen in Scion. Along with this, she has been fingered in the murder of the Underlord, Haymarket Hector, leader of the Unnatural Assembly. Hector acted as king of the unnaturals’ cohorts, and his death leaves a vacuum at the top which must be filled according to custom, by a scrimmage – a magical fight, often to the death for many participants.

Since she has returned, Paige has been searching for a way to make changes – to alert the other sighted humans to what has been happening beneath their noses in terms of the imprisonment of their kin and their gifting to the Rephaim as food and servants; and to ultimately change the rule of Scion, to allow gifted humans to walk freely among regulars. Her mime-lord, Jaxon Hall, refuses to let her talk, and she finds his control over her difficult to go along with, especially as she grows to realise that the way he manages them is constantly through self-interest – usually to amass further fortune.

I wanted Jaxon to be a better person, possibly because Paige wants Jaxon to be a better person. Like her, he came from nothing; but unlike her, this makes him more determined to stay above this nothing he came from, without any interest in allowing others to do the same. His talent is as a binder – any spirit whose true name he inscribes on his skin must remain by his side and do his bidding. The reason for Jaxon being the way he is will be explored in future books in the series I suspect, as he certainly has secrets that will add to the playing out of the plot.

I urge you to read this series if you enjoy dystopic fantasy. My review of The Bone Season is here. Start with the first in the series – then by all means, carry on. There is word that the first book is being prepared to become a movie by Andy Serkis and his production company, Imaginarium. If this is done well, I can see this series growing to be as big as The Hunger Games.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

The Mime Order
by Samantha Shannon
Published by Bloomsbury
ISBN 9781408857410

Book Review: Zealandia: Our Continent Revealed, by Nick Mortimer and Hamish Campbell

cv_zealandia

Available in bookstores nationwide.

What, you might exclaim with book in hand, is this Zealandia? Is it a symbolic female personification of colonial New Zealand? Is it the name of a naval ship, the title perhaps of a patriotic song? A butchery in Timaru? It is all of these but most pertinently it is the label applied to a continent that is ninety-four percent submerged, with New Zealand as its largest inhabited landmass. This book is the geological narrative of the complex and dramatic half-billion-year history of continental creation. It is also an imaginative plea for Zealandia to be recognised as ‘the seventh continent,’ and a description of the benefits attendant upon recognition.

The first four chapters of Zealandia deal expertly with the processes that have led to continental definition and the methods used by humanity to geologically and geographically define their home, Earth. The authors are scientists with GNS, experts in their fields of petrology, tectonics and palaeontology. Though the book has been written for a general audience, the subject is complex, the terminology specific. The text is therefore quite challenging and requires concentration. If the reader is prepared to invest the time, he or she may absorb conceptual knowledge of continental crust, hypsometry, subduction and bathymetry. The absorption is aided by what has become de rigeur in publications seeking to communicate science – exceptional visual material in the form of photographs, graphs, diagrams and maps, including underwater, seismic and satellite imaging to illuminate features perhaps previously unseen by most readers. To my mind, this is how a specialist book becomes accessible: with skilful synthesis and intelligent design cohering a panoply of relevant source documents.

The situation then is this: Zealandia is a mostly submerged continent, with relatively shallow waters over continental rather than oceanic crust separating the island land masses (New Zealand, New Caledonia, Howe, Norfolk and Chatham Islands) that constitute only six percent of the continent. This moves us along to Chapter Five: Society, in which the authors outline their central thesis and expand upon the question and answer supplied by them in the preface: “So what? Does it really matter? It matters enormously… to be island nations is one thing but to grow suddenly in stature and take on a continental identity changes everything.”

The authors wisely preface their comments regarding the social, cultural and economic consequences of living on a continent by conceding that they are “geologists, not social or political scientists and so have to tread carefully in this territory.” They then tread quite heavily.

For whilst it is very likely that continental recognition would open up unchallenged access to a greater range of economic resources, it seems less likely that the benefits would be unifying, or that “the geography and geology of Zealandia will lead the people of Zealandia to sustainable living standards and cultural, environmental security well into the foreseeable future.” History has not provided examples of this kind of unity.

These comments about sustainability and environmental security are further weakened by a certain dismissive tone when discussing the preoccupation “these days (with) the rare and threatened nature of various native plants and animals,” lamenting the lack of long view of most discussion regarding conservation and modern biodiversity. The authors are also fairly sure that a “so-called ‘green’ future has to involve just as much mining as at present,” and that “what makes or breaks nations and allows them to celebrate, preserve and promote their culture and environment instead of simply surviving off them, is largely to do with access to resources, to energy, minerals, agriculture and water.” This is true, but there is a paradox here, that ready access to energy, minerals and agriculture, within the prevalent methodologies of consumption, supply and demand, is likely to be incompatible with universal access to (decent) water. There is no acknowledgement either that using a land’s natural resources to accumulate wealth that allows us to celebrate and promote culture and environment is akin to, for example, using a country’s tax income from dairying and mining to fund advertising campaigns to project to the world a ‘100% Pure’ image.

However, it would be misleading to focus on the relative merits of this foray into ideology. For if Chapter Five’s conclusions are at best tenuous and at worst highly subjective, the bulk of the book’s material is definitely neither, and, in addition to digesting a detailed explanation of the evolution of a continent, an undaunted reader may experience the paradigm shift of perceiving New Zealand as simply the visible aspect of an enormous submerged continent. A speculative map on page 257 is the conceptual coup de grace, synthesising the geographical with the geological viewpoint by sketching how the landmass might have appeared to and been named by Kupe or Cook if the continental crust had been above rather than below the shallow ocean waters.

Zealandia closes with the prediction that Zealandia will in the near future be as commonplace a named fact as Antarctica and Australia. When a geologist refers to the near future, one cannot be sure of the inferred time scale. However, with a bit of luck, books are still relevant and unifying cultural artefacts in this near future, so that the predictions of the authors can be corroborated by the inhabitants of a freshly minted continent. In the meantime, the authors, publishers and scientific contributors behind Zealandia deserve accolades for their excellent research, collation, imaginative faculty and book design. The past, present and future of Zealandia is bright.

by Aaron Blaker

Zealandia: Our Continent Revealed
by Nick Mortimer and Hamish Campbell
Published by Penguin
ISBN 9780143571568

Book Review: All the Bright Places, by Jennifer Niven

cv_all_the_bright_placesBooks for teenagers which address suicide have to be really well done to succeed.

There has been a school of thought which suggests that such a topic is not suitable for them to read about. I don’t agree with that. I believe that teenagers should be able to read anything they wish – as should everyone. That said, I am still thinking about whether this is a book I’d put in my school library. I’ll come back to this thought later. (And no, in my opinion choosing not to include a book in the school library is NOT equal to censorship. The book will be obtainable from public libraries and booksellers. But that is another whole discussion and not for now!)

The book is fairly well-written. It’s witty – but this does not diminish the intensity of the story. It’s compassionate, but not overly sentimental. It’s real, but it does not try hard to get there. But there are some problems.

The protagonists, Violet and Finch, are both troubled kids. Finch comes from a deeply dysfunctional place – he’s really clever, kind, but suffers from some kind of psychiatric disorder which makes him “asleep” for long periods at a time. When he is “awake”, he needs to be entirely engaged in whatever he is doing, because “ the thing about being Awake is that everything in you is alive and aching and making up for lost time”. His family circumstances are awful, he is quite a loner, and also recognisably a troubled kid.

However, what exactly is wrong is not addressed, nor is there much help available, and I find this somewhat unsettling. Surely a book which deals with such a difficult subject as suicide could have found a way to address the underlying problems that cause this to be a possible solution.

Violet is a popular, talented girl, one of the “in-group” at school. Her family is far more functional than Finch’s, but her story is one of loss. Her older sister died in a car crash and this has left Violet bereft.

I don’t want to go into too much detail about the storyline, but will say that Violet and Finch form an unlikely pair who support and indeed love one another. This makes the end of the story all the more poignant.

There is indeed a message in this book and I think that overall Jennifer Niven delivers it reasonably well. However I am left with the feeling that the message given is not one that I would endorse. To me this book – although it attempts to explain and give reasons for everything – ultimately does not succeed, for me.

I thought it was well-crafted, and could not fault it on many levels, but to attempt to explain suicide and the lasting effects on those left behind by the statement “it’s not what we take, it’s what we leave” is a vast over-simplification, and at some level I find that deeply disturbing and not particularly helpful to kids who may be at risk.

I said I’d come back to the decision about putting this in my school library. I am still deciding. I’ll give it to some of my senior students to read and take their advice.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman, Information Centre Manager, Scots College

All the Bright Places
by Jennifer Niven
Published by Penguin Books
ISBN 9780141357034

Ed’s note: For another book which deals with teen suicide, I recommend Dear Vincent, by Mandy Hager.