Book Review: City of Crows, by Chris Womersley

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_city_of_crows.jpgI couldn’t find out if Paris was ever known as the ‘city of crows’, but crows, rats, disease, decay, plague, superstition, religious zealotry, witchcraft, burnings at the stake, evil, the devil, potions and spells all feature in this Paris of the 1670s. It is impossible for us in our sanitised, almost sterile and secular existences to even begin to imagine how hideous life was 350 years ago. The imagination required to create this story, and the skill to craft it is immense.

The mental pictures and images conjured up by the writer are so incredibly vivid. The physical descriptions of Paris, its poverty and depravity; the rural country side and forests in their untamed beauty and simplicity of living; life as a prisoner sentenced to years working as a galley slave; what people wore, what they ate, how they behaved towards each other (with mostly cruelty and ruthlessness).

But it is magic, black magic mostly, that is at the core of this novel. As a species, our whole society rests on how we explain the unexplained. Myths, legends, fairy tales, religions all present explanations for where we come from, what makes the sun rise every day, where storms come from… we worshipped gods of harvest to ensure food for the next year. These are just a few of the thousands of ideas we have come up with to explain the inexplicable – the ultimate tribute being a sacrifice of animals or humans to ensure the favour of the gods. So in 17th century Europe, with plague and pestilence or simply unexplained illness running rampart with no end in sight, and with praying getting no one anywhere, it is hardly surprising that people resorted to magic as yet another tool in the battle to stay alive and  get ahead.

Charlotte Picot is a young peasant woman who has lost her husband to plague, and three other children in years past. She has decided to leave her sick village in search of a better life, and with her young son Nicolas, takes to the road. Nicolas is kidnapped by child slave traders, Charlotte left for dead. She is rescued by an old woman, well known and feared by locals as a witch. The witch passes to Charlotte her spells book, shows her what she can do to get her son back, and sends her on her way.

At the same time, an unusual man who goes by the name of Lesarge is also on the road, making his own way to Paris. He is probably what we would nowadays calls a trickster, a magician, a con man. He has been released from a ten year sentence on the galleys, and is on his way to recover a fortune he knows exists in Paris. Somehow, magic brings he and Charlotte together, and they forge an unlikely alliance. After a number of adventures and encounters, they make their way to Paris.

It is definitely a strange book, and it walks a very fine line between the real world and the magical world. Both of the main characters are extraordinary, and I veered from liking to disliking to liking to being horrified by what they will do together and individually to survive. There is always that little bit of tension too in the writing – will they see a way around their differences and fall for each other, or will they always remain distrustful and scared of each other.

Unfortunately, for me, the magic got to be a bit much. The ending was most unexpected, rather horrifying, and ultimately plain silly. However, as another review I read pointed out, we have no way of knowing what state of mind Charlotte may have been in, deeply grieving, losing her last surviving child, always on the brink of finding him, but never doing so. Is it this state of mind that tips her over the edge? Or are there really darker forces at work? And Lesarge’s moral compass is somewhat disturbed as well, and he struggles to break away from his past life in the shady world of magic, potions and poisons.

There is a fantastic imagination at work here, and the writing is terrific. But there is also a lot of magic and weirdness, and if the fantasy genre is not your thing, this will only be a 3 star. If fantasy is your thing, then this could well be a great read for you.

City of Crows
by Chris Womersley
Published by Picador
ISBN 9781760551100

 

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Book Review: Gather the Daughters, by Jennie Melamed

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_gather_the_daughtersTold by four young girls, this is a story of life in a cult where men rule and females obey.  Their stories unfold as each girl grows into an awareness of what life will be like for them once they reach puberty and begin childbearing.

At the start of the book it appears that the members of the cult have retreated to an island after an apocalypse of some sort has destroyed most of civilisation, but as one reads on, it seems more likely that men of a certain proclivity have taken themselves out of civilisation so that they can live the lives they want, free from censure and punishment.  The book is well-written and engaging, with details of the horrors the girls undergo being slowly revealed throughout the book.

One keeps reading, after coming to know the girls through their narration, hoping that all will turn out well. As the story becomes darker and more is revealed, it is almost impossible to cast the book aside, even though the subject matter is horrific.

The author is a person who works with abused children in a psychiatric role, and when I learned this, I was surprised that she could write about such things: not because she has written the book badly, but because she has written so well. I was upset to the point of wanting to put it away from me but I had to know how things turned out.

Gather the Daughters should come with a trigger warning, especially since we now know how many children are sexually abused and the effect this abuse has on them all their lives. Some may be able to read this book just as a novel with disturbing content, but for others it may bring up memories and feelings that are all too real.

Reviewed by Lesley Vlietstra

Gather the Daughters
by Jennie Melamed
Published by Tinder Press
ISBN 9781472241719

Book Review: Tell Me a Lie, by C J Carter

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_tell_me_a_lieThis has the lot…

Horses, a pony, a Labrador, a Jack Russell, a marmalade cat, a mother, baby, children, a teenager – and that’s only the first body count.

Snow, sleet, rain, and moments of sunshine.

Vodka, wine, coffee, tea; and chocolate brownies.

Psychotic hatred and determination, impatience, annoyance; romance and love.

Shotguns, rifles, Kalashnikovs, pistols, knives, torture, sedatives, morphine…

The story moves between England and Russia, but has tentacles in South Africa and Australia. Tangled threads wind through a mire of misleading events. Dan Forrester (ex-MI5, now with a private political analyst service) is called in by MI6 to handle the Russian crimes. PC Lucy Davies – on the cusp of joining CID – finds herself untangling the thread attached to multiple family murders in England, with or without the official okay. Somehow they realise their cases are linked. The story is as much Lucy’s as it is Dan’s – whose wife Jenny is the link between Russia and England.

Carver makes the story race on, so be well belted in, or you too will get stuck in the mire. This is my first reading of her work, but will not be the last, as I want more of Dan Forrester and hopefully of Lucy Davies, whose mind works in waves of colour as thoughts and memories come in and out of focus – a creative concept.

The pace is rapid, the story builds with suspicion and suspense, the resolution is satisfying.

Here’s an example:

Dan’s skin turned cold.

The old man had used the exact words Dan had spoken to Eketarina. Proving that he’d heard everything he and Eketarina had said. The old man knew Dan was a spy of some sort and was letting him know that he knew.

Eketarina: Edik Yesikov secretly sent two agents to your country last week.

Chills running yet? More chills and thrills within the full novel, I promise. Whether you’ve read C J Carter before or not, grab a copy at your local Booksellers NZ store.

Reviewed by Lynne McAnulty-Street

Tell Me a Lie
by C J Carter
Published by Zaffre Publishing
ISBN 9781785762918

Book Review:On the Java Ridge, by Jock Serong

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_on_the_java_ridge.jpgThere’s something disturbingly satisfying about those rare novels that deliver an upper-cut to your gut. If you’re a masochist like me when it comes to novels, pick up On the Java Ridge.

Literary award-winning Jock Serong packs a punch on board the Java Ridge, an authentic Indonesian phinisi that ferries Australian tourists to remote surfing spots in the Savu Sea. Against the better judgement of Australian skipper Isi Natoli, a group of excited tourists plunge into the reef of uninhabited Dana Island, having spotted virgin surf. Outnumbered, Isi is forced to concede to the tourists’ demands for epic swells and anchors the Java Ridge in the island’s sheltered lagoon. After an idyllic afternoon among the waves, the group set up camp on the shore. With a tropical storm brewing to the north, they hope for a dry night ahead.

Hundreds of kilometres away, the Takalar has also set sail. On board is young Roya and her pregnant mother. They are now only an ocean away from the Promised Land, Australia, after fleeing persecution in Iraq. As the only survivors of their family, Roya, her mother, and her unborn sister have journeyed long and far in search of safety and a new life. Unbeknownst to both the Java Ridge skipper Isi Natoli and the asylum-seekers on board the Takalar, the notoriously refugee-unfriendly Australian government is on the eve of a general election and is relentless in preventing any last minute immigration scandals.

When the Takalar’s engine runs of its mounts and capsizes on the reef of tainted Dana Island, Roya and her mother come face to face with a watery reaper. Dozens lose their lives to the swirling Savu Sea. Yet despite the stormy skies Roya and her mother’s stars align, and they are pulled to safety by the Java Ridge’s skipper, Isi. Woken by the screams for help, identifiable in any language, the Australian tourists rescue as many people from the doomed Takalar as they can. A make-shift triage operation is set up on the island as the Takalar sinks to the ocean floor. Grappling with few supplies and needing urgent medical attention, Isi decides to load the Australians and asylum-seekers alike onto the Java Ridge and set sail for Australia.

Meanwhile in Canberra, the Minister for Border Integrity, Cassius Calvert, is beginning to make some ugly discoveries. Placed minister as a pawn, Cassius is self-absorbed and incompetent. The government has recently announced a new hard-line anti-asylum seeker policy that has the potential to cause public outcry. With the general election looming, it is vital that voters don’t scare. As Cassius starts to realise the grisly nature of the very policy he signed off on, his ineptitude proves him to be perfectly primed not to be able to prevent impending disaster. All the while, the Java Ridge chugs nearer.

Serong has a knack for creating characters the reader will invest in, and it is thanks to this skill that On the Java Ridge gets the reader eating out of the palm of one hand, and then delivers a sucker-punch with the other. Throughout the journey, we are subtly but expertly invited into the rationale of each character, resulting in some of the best understood and cared-for characters I’ve ever read (yes – even deplorable Cassius).

On the Java Ridge is a politically poignant thriller that is hugely relevant as developed nations grapple with the influx of uncontrolled migration. While certain governments draw international criticism on their hard-line immigration policies, there is a simultaneous rise in the popularity of notions such as those carried in the hashtag #RefugeesWelcome aimed against such policies. On the Java Ridge pushes readers to question how far their governments would go, and how far they would allow their governments to go in order to protect their borders. Serong’s novel is a timely reminder that we are all human, and just how easily we can lose touch with that shared identity.

Reviewed by Abbie Treloar

On the Java Ridge
by Jock Serong
Published by Text Publishing
ISBN 9781925498394

 

Book Review: Memoirs of a Polar Bear, by Yoko Tawada, translated by Susan Bernofsky

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_memoirs_of_a_polar_bearFor some reason, when I picked up Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada, I didn’t think it was actually going to be the memoirs of a polar bear. I completely judged the book by its cover and thought it was a YA book, perhaps like Margo Lanagan’s excellent novel Tender Morsels. Either that, or surely Tawada’s book was an allegory of some sort.
Nope. Memoirs is exactly what it says it is – the recollections and life history of a polar bear, or more specifically, three generations of polar bears, living in Cold War Europe. The first bear, a former performing circus bear now relegated to going to conferences on performing, begins writing her autobiography and eventually escapes the Soviet Union to flee to Berlin. Her daughter, Tosca, then picks up the story as she herself becomes a dancing performing bear. We then see Tosca’s son Knut, born in captivity in Berlin Zoo.

Part of the intoxicating strangeness of this novel is that the bears are bears but, for the most part, no one else seems to notice. The bears learn languages, write, take part in panel discussions, act in children’s theatre shows, and read the newspaper. Their bear-ness does show through sometimes, particularly with the grandmother bear upon her move to Berlin. Wintery Berlin is too hot for her (of course, she’s a polar bear); she play-fights with the human supervising her move to Berlin but she doesn’t realise his terror is real (of course, she’s a polar bear and doesn’t realise what it must feel like for a human to be thrown around by a bear); she blows all her money on buying all the salmon in the nearby shop (of course, she’s a polar bear, what else is she supposed to eat?). But interestingly, these things sound to the reader like cultural clashes. Tawada is talking (in a deliciously odd way) about the immigrant experience here, not the disconnect between humans and animals.

But the relationship between humans and animals is clearly a theme here, and making the main narrators polar bears only highlights the strangeness of being a human. And the cruelty. All the bears are living in a human-built cage – both the grandmother and Tosca are trained in circuses, and the grandmother has memories of being ‘taught’ to stand on her hind legs by having metal plates heated up under her front paws, forcing her to stand like a human lest her front paws be burned. And little Knut is raised in a zoo – treated well and with love by his handlers but, still, captive. Tosca at least has the benefit of a strange and deep bond with her human circus trainer Barbara – a soulful, indescribable communion between the two that seems to transcend language and exists most strongly in their mutually shared dreams. (Told you it was strange.)
Tawada’s prose, as rendered in English by translator Susan Bernofsky, is, by contrast, clear, sharp and fresh. Weirdness has never been expressed so cleanly. The grandmother says, “I lay there like a croissant, embracing Tosca”. The night time square outside her hotel reminds her of a theatre stage, “maybe because of the circular light cast by a streetlamp. A cat bisects the circle with its supple stride.”

This novel may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it certainly was mine. With many thematic strands of motherhood, humanity, captivity, and immigration woven through a generational story that I found absorbing at every turn, Memoirs of a Polar Bear will make you ponder its rare qualities for some time to come.

Reviewed by Feby Idrus

Memoirs of a Polar Bear
by Yoko Tawada, translated by Susan Bernofsky
Published by New Directions Publishing
ISBN 9780811225786

Book Review: The Traitor and the Thief, by Gareth Ward

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_traitor_and_the_thief_wardAn entertaining steampunk-esque adventure, The Traitor and the Thief won the Tessa Duder award (for unpublished young adult writers) in 2016. It is well written, taking in elements of Harry Potter and the Cherubs series, whilst also retaining a fresh originality.

Sin is an orphan and a thief, living on the streets and his wits. That is, until the day he is picked up and introduced to COG, a society that takes in skilled teenagers and trains them to be spies, in an effort to prevent, or reduce, the effects of war. Illiterate and not strong with numbers, Sin immediately sets about improving his skill-set with a dedication that is quite inspiration. He swiftly makes friends and settles in to his new way of life. Of course, this newfound prosperity is not to last, for there is a traitor in their midst, and if they are not unmasked, then all of their hopes will be in vain. Can Sin uncover the traitor? Or will his own past catch up with him and lead them all into ruin?

With a sparkling array of characters, an engaging world, and enough twists to satisfy, The Traitor and the Thief should appeal to fans of Philip Pullman and Philip Reeve.

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

The Traitor and the Thief
by Gareth Ward
Published by Walker Books
ISBN 9781925381504

Book Review: Never Say Die, by Anthony Horowitz

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_never_say_dieAfter reading the first few chapters of Never Say Die I got the distinct impression that Alex Rider is a bit of a young adult version of Ian Fleming’s James Bond – tied to MI6, frequenting exotic places, going up against formidable enemies, the odds being seemingly unfavorable, but of course eventually saving the day. However, the similarities end there between James Bond and Alex Rider. Despite being an asset in some capacity to MI6, Alex Rider is just 15 years old, making the novels just a bit more younger-person friendly. There is an element of unrealism because of the main character’s lack of years, but it was still a really enjoyable story.

As the latest addition to the Alex Rider series, Never Say Die sets the scene with an elaborate crime in Sullfolk, England, with seemingly no real motive or explanation, and the main character thousands of miles away in San Francisco. In the following chapter the crime is then suddenly pushed aside and focuses on Alex Rider, who is struggling to recover from experiences in the novel previous. Those traumatic events are progressively given more detail as Alex takes steps to reconcile the past and solve the mystery that still remains, all the while crossing paths with dangerous criminals not only seeking revenge but also plotting an act of terrorism.

Never Say Die includes plenty of action that go along with a typical spy novel but there are also more complicated elements within to back up the plausibility of the situation. It was at times a bit young but it was understandable given the audience the Alex Rider series is aimed at. That being said it could have easily been a lot more corny but Anthony Horowitz is successful as a whole in the balance he has maintained for such a series – innocent enough to be a young adults novel, but still exciting to actually be worthwhile reading; in my opinion any age group will enjoy Never Say Die.

Reviewed by Sarah Hayward

Never Say Die
by Anthony Horowitz
Published by Walker Books
ISBN 9781406377040