Book Review: The Best of Adam Sharp, by Graeme Simsion

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_The_best_of_Adam_sharpThis book is really good chick lit – so good,  I would have assumed the book had a female author, had I not read the front cover.

The book starts with an email Adam Sharp receives from Angelina Brown, an Australian actress who was briefly the love of his life more than 20 years ago. He was a British IT contractor on an assignment in Melbourne and they met in a club where he occasionally played the piano and sang in exchange for a few beers. That night he was trying to impress a woman he was on a date with, but all thoughts of her were forgotten when Angelina walked up to his piano and asked if he knew a particular song.

Although Angelina was married to Richard, the pair had a short but intense fling before Adam had to leave to fulfil the next part of his contract. Despite their best intentions, life got in the way and they ended up going their separate ways. Adam had a long relationship with his partner Claire and never gave Angelina another thought – until he received an email from her, with just the word ‘hi’.

The pair start an online conversation that Adam keeps from Claire. She is stressed as it is, as she is in the process of selling her software company. If the sale goes ahead she will end up in the US, and Adam has made it clear he isn’t prepared to go with her. The emails lead to Angelina inviting Adam to join her and her second husband Charlie on holiday in France. Adam doesn’t know why she invited him, but he knows things aren’t going anywhere with Claire so he ends their relationship and heads to France.

As soon as they are reunited, it’s obvious there is still an attraction between them. But Angelina is married with three children… and Adam doesn’t know what he wants, other than to go back to the time they first met. I don’t want to give away anything by going into detail about what happens in France, but it will shock and surprise readers!

The ending had a few surprises in store as well, and just when you think you know what life has in store for Adam, Angelina, Charlie – and Claire – Simsion throws another curve ball into the mix.

It’s an easy and enjoyable read, made all the more interesting by the playlist of songs that accompanies it. I’d guess the author is about my age as I knew all but a few of the songs listed, and could summon the lyrics as I read the book.

Reviewed by Faye Lougher

The Best of Adam Sharp
by Graeme Simsion
Published by Text Publishing
ISBN 9781925355376

Book Review: Under the Almond Tree, by Laura McVeigh

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_under_The_almond_tree.jpgLaura McVeigh’s debut novel, Under the Almond Tree, tells the story of a refugee family leaving Kabul, Afghanistan, to escape the Taliban in the 1990s. The narrator is Samar, a fifteen-year-old girl who lives on the stories of others while she and her family struggle to continue theirs. From her parents’ stories of Taliban severity after the Soviet invasion, Samar contemplates the atrocities of militant regimes and their destructive ideologies.

The repercussions of the Taliban presence impinge individual freedom. Samar’s affected family is represented, therefore, as a microcosm of a fracturing, imploding society. Apart from inflicting pain and death, the surveillant Taliban regime also severs family ties by sowing seeds of distrust and hatred. Consequently, Samar’s mother (Madar/Azita) and father (Baba/Dil) face many challenges as they strive to protect Samar and her siblings Omar, Ara, Javad, Little Arsalan, and Sitara. The novel also explores the influence of cultural standards and norms on relationships, and conveys a yearning for the past freedoms of Afghan women in particular, such as education and personal liberty, before the Taliban came about.

To cope with the destruction of her homeland and family, Samar finds strength through her talent for storytelling, which equips her with a passion for instilling hope by creating new lives for her family and for herself. What she learns is that while the Taliban can oppress women by banning their education and imposing stringent rules on their manner of dress and daily affairs, they can never take away the intangible, the universal, and the ideals of hope, love and beauty. Such a world lies in the pages of her encyclopedia, grammar books, poetry anthology, travel guides, and her favourite Tolstoy novel, Anna Karenina.

Under the Almond Tree is an emotional, descriptive, and wistful story about the power of ideas and stories, depicted as a form of quiet resistance. Imbued with literary and historical references, this book would appeal to teenagers and young adults. I particularly recommend it to those who have read a thematically similar novel, Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief: a story of resilience which takes place in the same century but in a different place and time.

Reviewed by Azariah Alfante

Under the Almond Tree
By Laura McVeigh
Published by Hachette NZ
ISBN 9781473640849

Book Review: Humans, Bow Down, by James Patterson & Emily Raymond

cv_humans_bow_downI have been an avid James Patterson fan for years. I especially enjoy the Alex Cross series and eagerly await new titles. His collaboration with a number of authors allows a wider repertoire and probably a greater spread of the profit. Sometimes the collaborations work, sometimes they make uneasy bed-mates.

So when I picked up Humans, Bow Down I was taken by surprise. This is no detective novel. This is a completely new genre but written superbly and a thoroughly gripping tale.

Here we are introduced to an earth in the future where humans are the minority, living on the fringes and subservient to their HuBot masters. It sounds like a simplistic plot, but it actually works well. Can the human race survive in a world where they are emotive and illogical? The intelligent, controlled and skilled HuBots are the masters on this earth.

The story follows the life of Six and her family as they struggle to survive in the underworld of the Reserve. On the HuBot side we have a malfunctioning family who appear to express emotions which leads to the empathy formed between the two lead females.

I felt the story was incomplete and rushed towards a conclusion. The setting lends itself to a new series of books based on these characters, which may perhaps be the hidden agenda. I look forward to further titles from this combination of writers telling of the future of HuBots and Humans on this strange new earth

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

Humans, Bow Down
by James Patterson & Emily Raymond
Published by Century
ISBN 9781780895505

Book Review: The Spy, by Paulo Coelho

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_spyThe Spy is written by prolific author Paulo Coelho. It is in some ways a re-imagining of the life of Mata Hari, using news reports and letters between Mata and her lawyer. Voiced as though Mata is narrating her own life, we are privy to her thoughts as the events of her life play out.

The story is mostly told from the perspective of Mata – and as such I think it may have partially lost its way. Paulo Coelho presents her life and thoughts using the fiction of her being ‘out of her time.’ The tag line for the book is “Her only crime was to be an independent woman.” It is in some ways a challenging read, as the reader is required to use that basis as the motivations of the character. Mata is presented as a sexually liberated dancer and prostitute, who is somewhat ahead of her time. This leads to her later conviction for spying. It seems to overlook some of the realities of her life – a young, abusive marriage, being forced to abandon her children and then having to support herself in Europe as it moved towards war. I couldn’t decide if this was an intriguing example of the ‘unreliable narrator’ – the character trying to portray herself in the best possible way. Is this genuinely how the author saw her story? Quite an intrigue.

Like similar books in this genre, it is a very easy to read overview of a particular period in history. Mata’s interactions made me quite reflective about what people do in difficult situations. What would you do to survive during wartime? What wouldn’t you do?

Mata’s internal voice is very flowery and somewhat poetic – there are some beautifully written passages such as “I was an exotic bird traversing an earth ravage by humanity’s poverty of spirit” and it concludes, sadly with “I am the nightingale who gave everything and died while doing so.”

Reviewed by Emma Rutherford

The Spy
Paulo Coelho
Published by Penguin
ISBN: 9780143783404

Book Review: See You in the Cosmos, by Jack Cheng

cv_see_you_in_the_cosmosAvailable now in bookshops nationwide.

This book centres on Alex, an 11 year old (but “13 in responsibility years”) who is fascinated by rockets and life on other planets. His mission is to launch his own rocket complete with his iPod on which he has recorded his comments about life on earth and what it’s really like for him.

It’s fair to say that Alex is not your average 11 year old: his dad is dead, his mum has a raft of issues of her own, and his older brother does not even live in the same town, so Alex is pretty much left to his own devices.  He is very resourceful, and very responsible. He sets out, without permission, because his mom is having one of her “days when she stays in bed and does not respond, to go to the South West High Altitude Rocket Festival taking along his dog Carl Sagan – named for his hero – and his rocket. This is where it turns into a road trip – and what a trip – there’s a zillion twists and turns and potential disasters and that’s before he even  gets to the festival.

It’s on the whole strangely credible, even if at the same time quite unlikely, and it gives the reader a great deal to ponder on about resilience, bravery and the importance of family. It helps that all the total strangers Alex meets up with are helpful, responsible and willing to take him as he is, which is probably somewhere on the autism spectrum. I don’t think that is particularly realistic but it does keep the momentum up. Faced with all the challenges which Alex encounters, most of us would give up and find a quick way home, but it’s part of the delight of this book that he doesn’t. It also shows an awareness on the author’s part of the challenges posed to, and by, kids on the “spectrum”, and the single mindedness which so often accompanies this.

I think it is an excellent story. It’s well-constructed, funny and sad sometimes at the same time, and Alex and the rest of the main characters (who cover a very wide range of the odd and the particularly peculiar, all good-hearted as can be) are quite credible.

Highly recommended for those who loved “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” and “Wonder”, but also for anyone who loves a story where challenges are confronted,  analysed and resolved through good will and compassion.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

See You in the Cosmos
Jack Cheng
Published by Puffin
ISBN: 9780141365602

Book Review: The Heart’s Invisible Furies, by John Boyne

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_hearts_invisible_furiesI must be honest and admit that I spent four days handling this book before actually starting to read it. Why? Well I have really loved all John Boyne’s books. The Boy in Striped Pyjamas was a stunner and I have never forgotten the impact it had on me when I read it. When I heard he had finally written a story based on the Ireland he had grown up in, I was anxious lest it be a disappointment.

This book was something different. Fear not, you will love it.

The tale of Cyril Avery takes us through the Ireland of the 1940’s to the present day. It is the story of an unmarried mother, denounced from the pulpit, who travels to Dublin where she gives her child up for adoption. Cyril is taken in by an unconventional family. This provides much of the comic relief in the story as his writer Mother (adoptive) and businessman Father (adoptive) struggle to cope with a son they rarely see and a world which is a mystery to them.

Cyril’s childhood, adolescence and advance to old age take us through political, social and literary changes in Ireland and the world. The detail is fascinating and Boyne knows the Dublin landscape so well. In a natural way, the lives of Cyril, his parents, friends and birth Mother interweave across the 60 years. We revisit them in different times and locations but the storyline keeps us guessing. It is a truly funny book with descriptions of erratic behaviour and genuine prejudice from the times. I can remember hearing the bigoted comments he captures so well, in my own youth. It is also a deeply moving story and I will admit to a few tears. Such cruelty and such love in one story.

Some will enjoy the book as an engaging tale written with style and great literary talent. For others, it is a reflection on what it means to be alive. Is happiness due to us, do we have to earn a sense of belonging or do we grow to be part of a family? It is about acceptance and rejection, religion and sexuality, love and loss. This all sounds cliché but the book is not. My suspicion is that this will become a great Irish novel. It tells a story we all suspect, we all know, but we could not say it so well. Make sure it is on your 2017 booklist.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

The Heart’s Invisible Furies
By John Boyne
Published by Doubleday
ISBN 9780857523488

Book Review: Cold Earth, by Ann Cleeves

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_cold_earthSeveral people had told me that I’d enjoy Ann Cleeves’ books and I wish now I’d sought her out earlier. Cold Earth is Cleeves’ thirtieth novel and the seventh in her Shetland series, so I’ve got a lot of catching up to do!

Set in the Shetland Islands, the book begins with a landslide at a funeral. Local detective inspector Jimmy Perez is at the graveside of his old friend Magnus when the landslide hits, and he watches it sweep away part of an old croft further down the hill. Unsure if anyone had been renting the croft, Perez goes to check. He spots a flash of red amongst the debris and finds the body of an exotic woman in a flowing red evening dress – not your usual Shetland winter apparel.

When investigations reveal the landslide didn’t kill her, that she had been murdered, Perez becomes obsessed with uncovering who she is and who killed her. Due to the damage inflicted by the landslide, finding clues in the croft isn’t easy. Two photos and a letter addressed ‘Dear Alis’ are all he has to go on. He invites Willow Reeves, a senior detective from the mainland, to join him and his sidekick Sandy Wilson. When Reeves arrives, it soon becomes clear there is unfinished business between her and Perez, but neither will let it get in the way of the investigation.

There are many inhabitants with many secrets, meaning there are also many suspects. The team uncovers evidence the dead woman had links to a number of locals, but does this mean one of them killed her? We learn a bit about most of the characters and once the dead woman’s identity is revealed, it seems almost every one of them could have had a motive for wanting her dead.

Just when you think you think you’ve got it sussed, a snippet about another suspect casts doubt in your mind.

I found the book really readable, and once I started I found it hard to put down. Having said that, I did feel the conclusion was a little rushed and a little melodramatic. It hasn’t put me off wanting to read more of Ann Cleeves’ books though, even if just to find out what happens between Perez and Reeves!

Reviewed by Faye Lougher

Cold Earth
by Ann Cleeves
Published by Pan Macmillan
ISBN 9781447278214