Book Review: The Black Widow, by Daniel Silva

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_black_widowHaving never read a Daniel Silva novel before, let alone one from the Gabriel Allon series, I was deeply impressed with The Black Widow. It was a great representation of what seems to be Daniel Silva’s incredible skill in crafting a bestselling thriller. The Black Widow contains an intricate plot about a legendary spy, a terrorist organisation, and a young woman who has the right skills at the right time.

The novel starts off appearing to be completely unrelated to the intriguing blurb covering the back of the book, but then it gathers momentum and mystery, becoming clearer where a character such as described in the blurb fits in. An attack from ISIS initiates an introduction to a secret Parisian counter-terrorism group, and from there the story works it’s way towards Gabriel Allon. Wanting the best to be involved in finding the perpetrators and stopping further attacks, Gabriel is enlisted by the French government to eliminate the threats. A plan is set into motion, infiltrate the ISIS caliphate by means of a Black Widow operation. A candidate for the role is then selected, and so begins the dangerously sensitive mission.

Daniel Silva writes with seemingly great insight into intelligence agencies from around the world and their counterparts of criminal and terrorist organisations. As stated in the forward and the author’s note, the events, incidents, characters, and places are of course fictitious, but still it is entirely believable in the sense that Silva manages to be realistic and rational.

The book itself could quite easily have been a stand-alone book; a new reader such as myself has no trouble in picking up the plot and the characters. It is not as though all the background information is thrust upon the reader so that the current story can be understood and get underway, but rather Silva reveals the previous stories and details almost with caution, letting them be explained when appropriate. As the reader, there are times when you desperately want to know more about how the past has affected the present situations and relationships, and it is then that more is provided. However, for the many people that have read the series and do know Gabriel’s history, in my opinion these explanations and flashbacks would not feel slow or repetitious. It is easy to tell that these features only scratch the surface of previous events that make up the 15 books before The Black Widow, serving as a reminder to those who have read them and for those who haven’t, making them eager to delve deeper into Gabriel’s story.

There seems to be a lot of fascination for characters like Gabriel Allon; an individual that possesses a skill set that is nothing short of extraordinary which contributes to making him mostly a misunderstood hero, if that; yet always in some respect unknown which seems to provide most of the allure surrounding such characters. Those such as James Bond, Jason Bourne, Jack Reacher, and many others have proved that there is a definite market in the entertainment industry for these brilliant and complex characters. While similar in the basic undertones, they continue to thrill those who read the books in which their lives are contained or watch the movies where their heroisms are portrayed in 90 minutes or so. Daniel Silva has created an individual that, in my opinion, stands out among these. The Black Widow is the latest instalment of the 16 book series that features Gabriel Allon, and in one book he has been able to spark my interest enough to read more of Gabriel’s story, and this to me shows incredible skill.

Reviewed by Sarah Hayward

The Black Widow
by Daniel Silva
Published by HarperCollins Publishers
9780732298951

Book Review: Red Herring, by Jonothan Cullinane

cv_red_herringAvailable now in bookshops nationwide.

The year is 1951, New Zealand is recovering from two World Wars, but there is unrest on the Auckland waterfront. Like the rest of the world the country has concerns with the rise of communism, stirring workers into confrontation with the Government. Wool and meat destined for Great Britain will sit on the wharves if the dispute escalates and business leaders are anxious the arguments are settled so this does not happen.

Red Herring is a work of fiction but the author Jonothan Cullinane has cleverly included historical facts and fascinating characters to create a page-turning thriller. It is an era in New Zealand history many do not remember and although I was only small at the time, I well remember my father talking about waterfront disputes, and as a farmer, it was ingrained in him to supply quality products “back home”.

Johnny Molloy is a private detective hired to investigate possible insurance fraud by one of the watersiders, who was thought to have drowned until being spotted in a photograph with the some of the organisers of the strike.

The reader is taken on a murky journey as Molloy runs into conflict with Fintan Patrick Walsh from the Federation of Labour, and the Communist Party boss, V.G .Parker.
But a young Auckland Star reporter Caitlin O’Carolan adds a lightness to the novel as she supports Molloy in his quest to unravel the mystery surrounding Frank O’Flynn, an IRA bomber on the run.

This book will appeal to anyone who enjoys a thriller, and I particularly enjoyed some of the descriptions, eg. “Harry Bridges had always been a handsome bloke in what might be called an Australian way – long face, long nose, hooded eyes, hair slicked back”.

I found it a complex read with some chapters providing background history, while other chapters were short adding real momentum to the story which gripped me from the first page.

The cover design is very appropriate and the author has provided a number of pages of acknowledgements to clarify points raised in the book.

Jonothan Cullinane has worked in America and Canada as well as in the film and television industry in New Zealand . Now based in Grey Lynn, Auckland, this is his first novel and I certainly hope there are further mysteries for Johnny Molloy to solve and for us to enjoy.

Reviewed By Lesley McIntosh

Red Herring
by Jonothan Cullinane
Published by  HarperCollins NZ
ISBN 9781775540984

Book Review: Earthquakes and Butterflies: Otautahi Christchurch, by Kathleen Gallagher

Available now in selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_earthquakes_and_butterfliesThe Christchurch earthquakes form the basis of this beautiful piece of writing. Kathleen Gallagher shapes her novel around the life stories of a cluster of people whose lives crisscross like the fault lines under the city. This is not a simple retelling though. Rather, it is an extended elegy on life, death, friendship and survival. The links to the land and the ancestors of this place begin each chapter, tying the story closely to Maori mythology and the spirituality of place.

The story works on so many levels. Yes, there is a basis on events which is elucidated through exquisite details…”they move slowly along beside split open, partly falling buildings, past the trees still standing as if nothing had happened, along Bealey Ave, where the big brick homes of yesteryear have their chimneys fallen through, their walls askew”.

But the people stories are what I loved the most. They are heartbreaking and tragic but hope flits on the edges, moving the story forward. The way strangers help unasked, generosity is freely given and shelter is for sharing.

It is wonderful to see such a prosaic tale arise from the rubble. The photo books, the kid’s stories, the building stories have been told. But here is a piece of literary writing which weaves together all these elements. Photographs of details from the city begin each chapter and are themselves mini masterpieces with their own tales. Gallagher has a close connection to the events and I struggled at times to read such clear expressions of my own experiences. It all came back; the fear, the loss, the humour and the uncertainty of each day. This book has captured it all. I am grateful for her vision, her compassion and her talent in producing this taonga.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

Earthquakes and Butterflies: Otautahi Christchurch
By Kathleen Gallagher
Published by Wickcandle Books
ISBN 9780473332327

Book Review: Yours Sincerely, Giraffe, by Megumi Iwasa, illustrations by Jun Takabatake

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_yours_sincerely_giraffeI’ve never met a Gecko Press book I didn’t like. Yours Sincerely, Giraffe is no exception.

The premise is deceptively simple. Giraffe is bored, and seizes an opportunity to write a letter to someone over the horizon. The recipient writes back. Each letter writer wonders about the other. Eventually they meet.

The story is so much richer than my plot synopsis indicates. What are letters (a valid question, in this day and age) and why would you bother? What do you do when you’re bored? How can you describe yourself to someone who can’t see you, or a photo or picture of you? How do you find out what something means when you’ve never heard of it before? How do you react when something doesn’t turn out quite right? Why is the ocean blue? Where does the horizon stop?

This is the sort of book that parents could read to their children and have a lovely time together; but a confident reader of 6-8 could easily read it by themselves. The opportunities for conversation are huge – and as a teacher, this makes me really excited. I can imagine using this book in lots of different ways in the classroom – letter writing, character descriptions, art, science, drama, dance … it really lends itself to lots of great ideas.

Translated to English from the original Japanese, Yours Sincerely, Giraffe is what teachers and librarians describe as “early chapter books” – rich with gorgeous illustrations in this case, and with not too much text on the page. One of my favourite 8-year-olds, Rosa, enjoyed this book as much as I did, and devoured it in one sitting. When I asked her who should read it, she said, “if someone doesn’t have a sense of humour, they definitely shouldn’t read it.” I agree – and I’d add this is the perfect book for curious readers and creative teachers, as well. Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Rachel Moore

Yours Sincerely, Giraffe
by Megumi Iwasa, illustrations by Jun Takabatake
Published by Gecko Press
ISBN 9781447250944

Book Review: The Muse, by Jessie Burton

Available at bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_museThere’s something magical about Jesse Burton’s The Muse. It’s visually immersive in a way I haven’t experienced in a long while. The language feels painterly – a style that reverberates with the content and themes of the novel, and there’s an effortlessness in the prose that feels like ‘viewing’ rather than ‘reading’.

The Muse presents two narratives, starting in 1967 with Odelle Bastien, an immigrant from Trinidad and a writer who’s more familiar with London’s feet than its journals. Unsatisfied with her job in a shoe shop, she’s offered a position at the Skelton Gallery as a typist, and is swept under the wing of Marjorie Quick. She soon becomes enraptured by the origins of a newly-surfaced painting, its owner, and what Quick may be hiding about her knowledge of it.

The painting’s origins are unearthed in the 1936 story of Olive Schloss, the daughter of an art dealer and a secret painter herself, whose sexual awakening and coming-of-age manifests in an obsession with a local artist. The two narratives enhance the telling of each other in ways that almost necessitate a second reading – there are some truly beautiful insights on life, loneliness, otherness and creativity; yes, some brutal realities are swept over, but so the brush keeps moving.

The John Berger epigraph: “Never again will a single story be told as though it were the only one” is so fitting, not only in keeping with the novel itself, but also in encompassing its creation. Jesse Burton’s first book The Miniaturist was translated into over thirty languages and has sold over a million copies. On her blog, Burton has been quite open about her struggles with depression and anxiety following the success of her first novel (link to her amazing post below). Themes of artistry, creativity and success in The Muse are marked by the author’s fingerprints of experience. I’ve mused on a fair few passages myself – the reading was at times truly cathartic.

Although a little heavy-handed at times, The Muse is one of my favourite books this year. It’s multi-faceted and poignant, and it resonated personally. I thinkBurton makes good on the sentiment she expressed in February, where she so openly discussed the process drafting this book:

“I have tried to write a novel full of life. I have written a book whose themes interest me, a book I would like you to read on a gloomy English night, a book to transport you as much as it chimes close to home.”

Reviewed by Emma Bryson

The Muse
by Jessie Burton
Published by Picador
ISBN 9781447250944

Book Review: The Feel Brave Series, by Avril McDonald, illustrated by Tatiana Minina

Available in bookshops nationwide.

feel_brave_septemberThese beautifully illustrated books are designed to lead children through issues that they may find challenging, especially from an emotional point of view.

There are 5 books, listed below, plus a guide that helps the adult/adults work through different issues with activities that are designed for specific areas such as craft activities, physical exercises and drama games. The books’ reach is broad but everything is neatly tied together.

The story books that accompany the guide book are simply gorgeous, the illustrations perfectly fitting the text. Finding Calm, Self Confidence, Making Relationships, Anxiety and Fears and Change, Loss and Grief cover a lot of ground but it is ground that can often be a part of a child’s life on a daily basis and not in a good way. These books step in and provide support, comfort and solutions that are relatable and reasonably easy to make a part of a child’s emotional thinking. Changing our thinking is really what it boils down to when we face an issue that grips and won’t let go, and these books are an excellent tool/resource to help us do so.

Designed for the 4-7 year age group, this resource could be a great at-home resource and a very valuable resource for any Primary School.

Reviewed by Marion Dreadon

The Feel Brave Series
by Avril McDonald, illustrated by Tatiana Minina
Published by Crown Publishing

This series is comprised of the following books: 
The Wolf’s Colourful Coat
ISBN 9781785830204

The Wolf is Not Invited
ISBN 9781785830174

The Wolf and the Shadow Monster
ISBN 9781785830181

The Grand Wolf
ISBN 9781785830198

The Wolf and the Baby Dragon
ISBN 9781785830211

Feel Brave Teaching Guide
ISBN 9781785830167

Book Review: The Case of the Missing Body, by Jenny Powell

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_case_of_the_missing_bodyIn The Case of the Missing Body, Jenny Powell beautifully renders the strangeness of proprioceptive disorder. People with this disorder lack the natural awareness of where the body is positioned. And so, Powell introduces the book as a kind of detective story. What she is searching for is a body that has always been there, but that she herself has been unable to feel.

In this memoir, Powell explores her own story through Lily. The prologue starts with longing as Powell describes Lily’s simple dream of being able to ride a bicycle. This dream and many others are turned down as Lily struggles with the disorder through ballet and gymnastics classes. Her life becomes defined by surgeries and a cycle of breakage and repair.

Lily’s diary entries give a personal insight into her journey. After repeated injuries, she makes a gym appointment to find the joints within her body again. As she works with her physiotherapist Patrick, her sense of self widens within her. When Lily finds movement in her shoulder blades, she describes these joints as “shoulder-blade wings”. Suddenly, her body isn’t just a head with floating thoughts; it comes to be made out of other connecting limbs.

Without the natural grasp of her body that others have the luxury of, Lily turns to her own conscious thoughts in order to ground herself. Again and again, she returns to the idea of herself as a totem pole, and it is this image that keeps her straightening her back and retaining her posture. As Lily describes it, “Here is a way in to my brain, through imaginings”. It is her way of understanding what her own body cannot.

It becomes a learning process not just in finding her body, but having the confidence to continue. This also means continuing her programme at the gym, sometimes going alone, with some sessions that are clumsier than others. Without her own natural sense of her body, she must craft her own out of determination.

At the epilogue, Powell comes back to Lily’s bicycle dream. First, Powell describes other alternate Lilys that have become trapped within wonderland, ones who tumble down rabbit holes and are forever stumbling. Then she finally comes back to the Lily of reality, who still dreams of riding that bike. However, now she is closer than ever and does not stumble as heavily as she used to. She cycles on the tandem bike in the gym and lives “a forever moment on a rented opportunity”. Her flying is a different kind of flying, one that begins and grows with the shoulder blades that she sees as wings, as freedom.

Powell proves that physiotherapy is not just a process concerning the body, but also the mind. The complexity of Lily’s condition is one that requires adjustment and time. The appendix of definitions at the end of the book is also invaluable in further understanding proprioceptive disorder, something I’d never heard of before reading the book.

The Case of the Missing Body is a memoir on locating the self not just physically, but also mentally. It is a detective story where the detective uses her mind and determination to slowly uncover clues, part by part, in order to locate her own body.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

The Case of the Missing Body
by Jenny Powell
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN 9781877578311