Book Review: Allegra in Three Parts, by Suzanne Daniel

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_allegra_in_three_partsAllegra is 11 years old, living in suburban Sydney in the 1970s with her dad Rick and grandmother Mathilde at number 23, and grandmother Joy at number 25. Her mother died when she was very small, and her memory of her is very hazy. Narrated by Allegra, she has little understanding of why this situation is so, only knowing that she constantly feels herself torn into two between her loving but vastly different grandmothers, and the emotionally distant figure of her father.

Allegra is a smart wee girl, extraordinarily sensitive to those around her, in the process navigating the classroom ghastliness of 11 year old girls and keeping her grandmothers happy. Not easy when they can’t stand each other. And yet Allegra does not know why this is. Her growing friendship of fellow outsider young Aborigine girl Patricia further sets her apart from the rest of her class, but not from her teacher Sister Josepha.

1970s Australia is not an easy place for women, and the growing awareness Allegra is finding of the world around her puts her and those she loves on a collision course.

This book could leave you with a tear in your eye. This novel is marketed as teen/YA fiction/coming of age fiction. But is equally enjoyable and meaningful for everyone else. I loved this – all about what it means to belong to a family and to be loved.

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

Allegra in Three Parts
by Suzanne Daniel
Published by Macmillan
ISBN 9781760781712

Book Review: Sadness is a White Bird, by Moriel Rothman-Zecher

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_sadness_is_a_white_bird.jpg‘Everything was salt and sweat, summertime and sharpened swords’ – what an opening sentence that is. Except that it’s not actually the opening sentence, as there’s a small paragraph before chapter one which begins: ‘Oh Laith. I don’t know shit about flowers.’ That’s a pretty good opening sentence too, and in fact resonates throughout the novel.

I could not put this book down. It’s absolutely beautiful; challenging, confronting, poignant, powerful, political. It’s by turns – and also at the same time – a love story, a love triangle, a coming-of-age-story, a completely open and honest take on the hornet’s nest that is the Israel-Palestine conflict, a searching for family roots and more.

It’s honest, tough, uncompromising in its truth, and deserves to be very very widely read.

Moriel Rothman-Zecher is a young Israeli-born, American-raised writer. Middlebury Magazine says this about his writing:
‘To be an artist in the year 2018 is to be continually grappling with questions of privilege, authority, and authenticity. In his novel, Mori gives voice to an Arab grandmother, an IDF commander, a West Bank Palestinian, and a gay teenager in Auschwitz. If the only story you have permission to tell is your own, he thinks, then the abiding premise of art is dead. Still, telling others’ stories means telling them with great care. Mori asked a diverse cast of friends to be early readers; they fact-checked everything from his Arabic transliterations to the number of seats in an Israeli armored personnel carrier. He’s proud that, even when former IDF soldiers disagree with his politics, they don’t fault his rowdy depiction of life in the barracks.’

As a Jewish writer who both loves Israel and is unafraid to fault it, Mori is accustomed to attracting criticism from all quarters. He’s not getting any criticism from this reviewer.

The protagonist, Jonathan, is nearly 18 and about to do his compulsory army service. (Moriel refused to his, and ended up in a military prison for 20 days). School is over, he and his friends (who will also go into the army) are spending summer mucking around, smoking, drinking a bit, smoking other substances a lot, and generally killing time. Then Jonathan meets (via his mother’s activist work) Nimreen and Laith, Palestinian twins. They form an instant and strong connection and spend every Friday together, talking, smoking, hanging out. They believe they can have it all, but that faith is shaken when Jonathan goes to the army.

I am not going to give anything else away. I think that Rothman-Zecher has written a really remarkable novel. If you are interested at all in the conflict between Israel and Palestine, you won’t find any quick answers here, but you will find a great deal of insight into the complexity of the situation, the reality of life in the region, and the power of fiction to build bridges.

I think this book would be a great one to put into senior school libraries, but it’s not a kids’ book. I think public libraries should stock it, and I think you should all just go and get it, and read it. You cannot fail to be moved.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

Sadness is a white bird
by Moriel Rothman-Zecher
Washington Square Press
ISBN 9781501176272

Book Review: River of Salt, by Dave Warner

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_river_of_salt.jpgI had never come across this Australian writer and I was pleasantly surprised. I learned that he is a musician (Bob Dylan’s favourite Aussie muso, apparently) and a ‘living treasure’. He’s also a pretty good writer!

Murder mysteries are often written to a formula, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing,as you know what you are in for. While I haven’t read previous books by Warner, I am inclined to think that River of Salt is unusual in that it’s not in the least formulaic, and I cannot imagine the main character, hitman Blake Saunders, easily transferring to other situations.

This well-written and exciting mystery is set during the 1960s in a small Australian coastal town, where Blake Saunders has ended up after leaving Philadelphia and his Mob connections.

He sets up a bar/music venue in this small place, and soon learns that the local cop is a bit like a sheriff – knows all, manages most of it in his own way, is a bit dodgy himself.

Because this is a murder mystery, there’s a body early on, with a connection to Blake’s venue. He sets out to protect his patch by finding the killer. There are twists and turns, and a couple of things which stretch credibility, but that’s all part of the game.

The characters are well-drawn, and the 60s setting is also well done. I can’t tell you much more without giving away spoilers, but there’s a lot going on, and I found it an enjoyable read. In a bit of a change from many American murder-mystery writers, Dave Warner writes in proper sentences, which are well-constructed. It’s quite a lot more complex than, say, a Robert B Parker novel, and I’d recommend it to readers who enjoy a well-told, exciting story.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

River of Salt  
by Dave Warner
Published by Fremantle Press
ISBN 9781925591569

Book Review: The Binding, by Bridget Collins

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_the_bindingThe Binding is a novel which immediately seduces. Like the hardback books of the nineteenth century, it has deckle edging, quality paper and an embossed spine – its bronze, navy blue and glossy gold cover will entice you with its strikingly classic yet magical design.

The first adult novel from acclaimed London-based writer and playwright Bridget Collins, The Binding is a novel about bookbinding – a booklovers’ dream.

After volunteering with the Samaritans and listening to people’s stories, Collins began to wonder what would happen if she could simply take the ‘traumatic or painful’ memories away from a person. The idea collided with the practical bookbinding courses she was on, and so The Binding was born.

Set in rural England in the late nineteenth century, books in the world of The Binding are not revered or commonplace objects. Instead, books are reviled by most, despised by many, hoarded and protected only by a few. By decent people, they are not sold or put on display: instead they are kept in locked vaults. Only those with corrupt motives persist in the illegal trading of books or the collection of vast libraries. When the main character, Emmett Farmer, picks up a book for the first time, his father panics, rips the book away from him, and shouts ‘Don’t ever let me see you with a book again!’

Why are books so dangerous in the world of The Binding? Emmett soon finds out – instead of stories, bookbinders bind memories. Memories of living people, who, once they have had a memory bound, can no longer remember anything to do with it. Much like witches, bookbinders are seen as suspicious, mysterious people – even evil. When someone wants to forget something – be it terrible or beautiful – they can go to a bookbinder and have the memory removed. As long as the book is not destroyed, the memory remains safe. If the book is destroyed, the memory returns to its owner – often with dire consequences.

Emmett Farmer knows his future: he will continue to work his father’s farm and one day take over the land. But when a mysterious letter arrives summoning him to a bookbinding apprenticeship, his life rapidly dissolves into a confusion of strange events, odd happenings and pounding headaches. Emmett learns from his elderly mentor Seredith that bookbinding is not what it first appears. In each beautifully hand-crafted book is a memory, and he is to learn how to bind them.

When the mysterious character Lucian Darney appears and throws everything into disarray, Emmett makes an astonishing and terrifying discovery: one of the books in Seredith’s workshop has his name on it.

The Binding is a lush read. Told in three parts: the first and second by Emmett and the third by Lucian, this is a sweeping tale that will hold you entirely in its grip. It is effortlessly readable, with beautiful descriptions (‘Quietness spread out around me like a ripple in a pond, deadening the hiss of the wind and the scratch of the flames’) and vivid characterisation.

Beware if you are going into The Binding looking for a fantasy adventure, however. Primarily a novel that is (self-admitted by Collins) ‘shamelessly romantic’, some readers might be unhappy when the novel prioritises the romance above all else. From the second part onwards, the novel keeps the fantasy elements but its focus shifts from fantasy adventure to fully-fledged romance. It is a tale about people who find love with each other despite the odds.

The Binding has very dark content at parts, particularly in part three, and requires some content warnings including rape, abuse and murder.

One of the most interesting part of The Binding, for me, was the moral discussion over whether bookbinding (i.e. memory-binding) is a good or bad thing. Although a person must voluntarily give up their memories, there are societal implications – people with more power want others to forget what they have done, and, inevitably, it is the poor who are the most hurt and targeted. If a poor person needs money or food, they can choose to ‘sell’ a memory to a bookbinder, leaving them incomplete. It is almost impossible to regain their memories – and they can be irrevocably hurt in the process.

Considered evil by most, Emmett’s tutor Seredith considers bookbinding as a life-saving act, a ‘sacred’ art that ‘eases the pain’ of her clients. She essentially amputates the painful memory and leaves the person able to start life anew. Others have more corrupt intent because they make books for ‘trade’. Seredith is horrified by this idea: ‘You become each person you bind, Emmett … Just for a little while, you take them on. How can you do that if you want to sell them at a profit?’

With bookbinding, romance, fantasy, wit and humour, Collins has created a magical tale that booklovers will adore. The lyrical language and engaging characters ensure The Binding is an immersive read. Be careful though – perhaps your lost memories are hiding in a book somewhere, too …

Reviewed by Rosalie Elliffe

The Binding
by Bridget Collins
Published by HarperCollins
ISBN 9780008272111

Book Review: The Queen’s Colonial, by Peter Watt

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_queens_colonial.jpgSamuel Forbes, a British aristocrat serving in the New Zealand Land Wars in 1845, is estranged from his family and desperately out of place in the army. Ian Steele, a blacksmith in rural New South Wales, dreams of life as an officer in the British army, but is tied to his widowed mother and held back by being the son of former convicts. When they meet by chance, and realise their similar physical appearance, it gives each of them a chance to follow their dreams.

The story thereafter follows Ian as he takes on Samuel’s persona, attempting to make his way in aristocratic and army circles in England. He makes friends and enemies along the way, and is sent with his regiment and ersatz younger brother to the Crimean War.

Peter Watt has a long list of pubished titles to his name, as well as a varied job history that includes soldiering, which shows in the detail of regimental life, both in London and the Crimea. He’s clearly had success as a writer, although I found his style took a lot of getting used to. The dialogue in particular caused me problems. I found it extremely stiff and formal and quite expository, and not at all how I imagine new Australians talked to each other (and certainly not how other authors portray speech of that place and period). Many of the characters were unexpectedly frank with each other, in ways that even today most people probably wouldn’t be, and it was hard to imagine Victorian men and women being so honest and upfront about their thoughts and feelings, especially after a very short acquaintance. There was also a lot of repetition and detail that didn’t further the plot, and occasionally caused my eyes to glaze over.

Never fear though, I stuck it out, and I’m glad I did. During the second half of the book, I found my enjoyment picked up and I stopped noticing the dialogue and repetition so much. The scenes at the siege of Sebastopol in particular were vividly written and awfully reminiscent of the trenches of World War I. The intrigues of Charles Forbes and Major Jenkins added a sense of anticipation and danger to the story arc. I even found myself looking forward to the next instalment in the series – and I certainly wouldn’t have predicted that in the first 150 pages.

If you like historical fiction with a heavy war angle, The Queen’s Colonial may be for you.  My taste in written dialogue won’t be everyone’s, so judge for yourself at the bookstore, and sample a couple of pages to see if it suits.

Reviewed by Rachel Moore

The Queen’s Colonial
by Peter Watt
Published by Macmillan Aus
ISBN 9781760554729

Book Review: Vodka & Apple Juice, by Jay Martin

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_vodka_&_apple_juiceJay Martin’s husband accepts a diplomatic post in Poland so she leaves career to share the experience with him, of living in a country vastly different to Australia.

Her memoir Vodka & Apple Juice catalogues their journeys to many countries bordering Poland, as well as her involvement assisting Tom with his job at the embassy. From glamorous cocktail parties and dining with presidents, to snowy sleigh rides and drinking vodka in smoky bars, Jay is thrown into all that embassy life has to offer. She sets herself a goal of learning the Polish language and starts simply ordering coffee etc until eventually she is able to hold a conversation and confident to explore the country on her own, as well as venturing in Eastern Europe. At times Martin struggled with living in Poland as she felt she was living multiple lives, doing the mundane living things about the home, or staying in five star hotels while on embassy work but she was also living as a foreigner, trying to identify food items in the supermarket while ‘finding my way around on buses and dealing with obstructive post office officials.’

She felt her husband Tom wasn’t having the same ‘disjointed experience’ as he was in the embassy all day and often into the evening. But her writing for the Warsaw Insider and volunteering at the museum as well as the addition of a cat called Very helped her become more satisfied with her Polish experience.

An engaging read, with touches of humour which help to lighten the enormous challenges the couple find themselves having to deal with, in a very different culture to what they are used to. It will be enjoyed by anyone who travels, especially to a country where English is not the native language. Martin’s inclusion of historical facts also add a depth to the book without making it a heavy read, as the author’s wit is evident in every chapter. I loved the book, its name is captivating, and the cover splendid, inviting the reader to turn the pages to read of the Travels of an Undiplomatic Wife in Poland.

Jay Martin grew up in Melbourne and lived in a number of countries overseas before settling in Canberra where she worked as a policy analyst and married her husband Tom. On their return from Poland the couple settled in Fremantle,Western Australia, with the cat called Very.

Reviewed by Lesley McIntosh

Vodka & Apple Juice
by Jay Martin
Published by Fremantle Press
ISBN 9781925591316

Book Review: A Well-Behaved Woman, by Therese Anne Fowler

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_a_well-behaved-womanHello, my name is Rachel, and I am addicted to historical fiction. Probably 60-70% of my adult library is historical fiction, with another 15% historical biography. For me, the sign of a good historical fiction book is one that sends me searching for more information, and A Well-Behaved Woman certainly fits the bill.

The riches to rags to obscene-riches tale of Alva Vanderbilt (nee Smith, later Belmont) is the focus of Fowler’s novel. After the American Civil War her family was left in dire financial straits, and to avoid abject poverty Alva needed to marry well (or more to the point, she needed to marry wealthy). She set her sights on William Kissam Vanderbilt, and won, entering into a world of wealth and privilege that defies comprehension.

Life wasn’t all smooth sailing (both literally and figuratively) for Alva after her marriage. The Vanderbilts were ‘new money’ and found it hard to gain acceptance in the top tier of New York society. Alva worked tirelessly to gain acceptance for the family and a lot of the novel’s plot follows her efforts to become part of the New York crème de la crème, as well as her married life with William.

Alva’s character – strong, determined, well-educated, rebellious and creative – is a gift to an author, and Fowler has made the most of it. The book is well-researched and moves along at a good pace, and successfully transports the reader to the luxurious world of Gilded Age New York, Newport and Europe. It’s a very enjoyable read, and the only thing missing for me was a Vanderbilt family tree – fictional Alva struggles to keep track of them with their reuse of names when she first meets them, and she at least had the benefit of seeing faces. As a reader it was even harder to keep track.

A Well-Behaved Woman sent me in search of one of my favourite book adaptations, the BBC’s 1995 version of Edith Wharton’s unfinished The Buccaneers, set at the same time as much of Alva Vanderbilt’s early story, and certainly appearing to be based on some real life characters (you can find it on YouTube). I also spent some time skimming my long-forgotten copy of Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt by Amanda Mackenzie Stuart, enjoying the photographs of the novel’s protagonists. And this is why it’s easy for me to recommend A Well Behaved Woman to others who enjoy historical fiction and/or strong and interesting female characters – I was completely satisfied with the novel, but my interest was piqued and it sent me looking for more.

Reviewed by Rachel Moore

A Well-Behaved Woman
by Therese Anne Fowler
Published by Two Roads
ISBN 9781473632516