Book Review: 4 3 2 1, by Paul Auster

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cv_4321.jpgPaul Auster’s novel 4 3 2 1, his first in seven years, is a sweeping river of a book, taking us on a ride through the heady events of America’s 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s, and all told through the eyes of one young man called Ferguson. Or, rather, told through the eyes of four different versions of that young man Ferguson. Ferguson’s genetic makeup and personality stay the same, but from the moment of his birth, Ferguson’s life splits four different ways and the novel travels down four increasingly divergent paths, following four increasingly different Fergusons. In so doing Auster writes four versions of the great American novel, all running alongside each other at the same time.

Written in alternating chapters, the first Ferguson’s life story focuses on his romance with Amy Schneiderman, the great love of his adolescence and young adulthood. By contrast, Amy never even enters the story of the second Ferguson, and in the third Ferguson’s story, Amy is much longed for but eventually set aside in exchange for the confusing and exhilarating experiences Ferguson 3 experiences in Paris, where he eventually moves. In Ferguson 4’s story, his home life is vastly different — eventually his family becomes a blended melting pot of step-siblings and step-uncles.

Having said that, each Ferguson stays in many ways the same — baseball and books seem like the most important things in all the Fergusons’ lives, as well as his family, especially his mother. As such, Auster doesn’t seem interested therefore in seeing how much he can make each Ferguson’s path diverge from the others (though they do in some cases diverge widely). Rather, Auster is interested in the ‘what if?’ What if I had journeyed down the path less traveled? What if that relationship I wanted so badly had actually worked out? What if I had moved to Paris like I always wanted to? What if I had been born rich? What if I had been born poor? What if my father, or my grandfather died, or I died when I was a child? How would things be different? Who would I be, and what world would I be living in?

4 3 2 1 always gives you the feeling of movement – flowing or running through the years like a boat borne on a swift tide. Auster’s long spinning sentences, some of them lasting a full, hefty, paragraph, contribute significantly to this effect. But these sentences never become annoying or tiresome. They only speed you along, making this novel something of a page turner (which sure helps to make this 800-page tome more digestible). And the pace of the book itself is quick without being rushed. We move swiftly through the fifties, sixties and seventies but we still manage to get a good sense of how those decades felt — especially the sections set in the late sixties, where scenes of young anarchists marching on campus and disenfranchised black New Jerseyans rioting in the streets were hair-raising to read, and in some ways hair-raisingly familiar.

I cannot pretend that I didn’t get a bit confused between the different Fergusons, especially in his adolescent years when the Fergusons were all living fairly similar lives. But that confusion was never enough to make me want to stop reading. And amazingly, after having made my way through all 800 pages, my first thought was: I want to read it again. A great plot, written in an athletic style, with above all the central character of Ferguson, a Jewish everyman whom you grow to love. Why wouldn’t I want to read it again? I can’t think of a single reason. Very highly recommended.

Reviewed by Feby Idrus

4 3 2 1
by Paul Auster
Faber and Faber
ISBN 9780571324620

Book Review: The Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry

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This book has just been awarded Fiction Book of the Year at the British Book Awards

cv_The_Essex_serpent_bigRelationships, in all its forms, can be fickle things, constantly surprising us in ways that we don’t always want or expect. Such is true in Sarah Perry’s Victorian novel, The Essex Serpent – an exploration of the human mind and self when faced with the complexities of love, society, and belief.

The story centres around Cora Seabourne, a young widow and keen amateur naturalist who decides to travel away from London with her son and female companion. When she learns of the Essex Serpent, a mythical sea creature said to be responsible for a mysterious death in the remote village of Aldwinter, her curiosity piques and she sets off in the hopes of discovering a new species. Meanwhile, the local vicar William Ransome is fighting a losing battle against the rising fears of his parishioners. While he is determined that the rumours are a result of moral panic, the ongoing troubles in the village challenge his views, and an unexpected friendship develops between Cora and Will both rewarding and destructive to those around them.

The glowing reviews and accolades that this book has received attest to the skillfulness of Perry’s atmospheric writing. Every description is exquisitely crafted in a way that allows you to wallow in Essex’s coastal landscape, with scenes of dreamlike renderings presenting nature at its best:

‘On turns the tilted world, and the starry hunter walks the Essex sky with his old dog at his heels. […] On Aldwinter common the oaks shine copper in the sunblast; the hedgerows are scarlet with berries. The swallows have gone, but down on the saltings swans menace dogs and children in the creeks.’

Perry’s characters, while diverse and clever in their own way, are something I’m mixed on. I feel that we have only skimmed the surface of each relationship presented to us, and as a result, the anticipated tension didn’t quite translate through the story or capture my interest. The somewhat modern dialogue and references also left the characters bordering on the unrealistic side, though I appreciate her inclusion of strong, unconventional women with contemporary views.

If you’re looking for a slow gothic read to complement those rainy nights, this is the book for you.

Reviewed by Tracey Wong

The Essex Serpent
by Sarah Perry
Published by Serpent’s Tail
ISBN 9781781255445

Book Review: The Cutthroat, by Clive Cussler and Justin Scott

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cv_the_cutthroat.jpgThe latest instalment of the Isaac Bell series highlighted to me that Clive Cussler really is the master of suspense and as Sunday Express puts it, ‘The Adventure King’. Along with Justin Scott, he has crafted an addition to the popular detective series that holds up to the high standard set by its predecessors.

Set in 1911 and approaching the height of Isaac Bell’s detective career, The Cutthroat begins with the Van Dorn Detective Agency taking the case of a wealthy business man seeking help to find a runway daughter determined to make her own way in life, while searching for fame on the theatre stage during the golden age of high society and sophistication. The hunt for the young woman leads the story toward a different path then usual for Isaac Bell, triggering a chain of events and discovery that reveals connections to a dark mystery spanning decades previous. Suspense and unexpected twists frequent the novel as Bell seeks to make sense of the sinister happenings, while calling on the Van Dorn resources all over America and internationally to uncover an elusive killer that chills even the most hardened among them.

The world in which Cussler has created the Isaac Bell series is a convincing blend of life in the emerging political and financial heart of New York and America at the turn of the century, resulting in convincing authenticity. The novels are clever and fast paced, keeping the reader engaged and curious. The Cutthroat is no exception. The main difference with this book is, in my opinion, how it breaks the mold in featuring a more glamorous side to New York and the rest of America by exploring the allure and ambition of the American theatre at it’s peak, rather then the rivalry and strife caused by the gangs heavily featured in previous novels. It is refreshing to have such a change, which I’m sure avid readers of the series will appreciate, while still giving first-time readers a taste of the classic Isaac Bell adventures.

The story itself was a courageous take on actual history that as a whole was extremely well done in the classic Cussler style, however the ending itself felt abrupt and hurried. I did enjoy the rest of the novel in terms of content and originality for the series; there was plenty of potential for a spectacular and strong conclusion but unfortunately it missed the mark for me. Clive Cussler and Justin Scott have done a commendable job in carrying on the Isaac Bell series and intertwining the lives of characters from books previous to the latest instalment, so I feel that The Cutthroat is still a good read and worthwhile in order to keep up with the progression of the Isaac Bell series.

Reviewed by Sarah Hayward

The Cutthroat
by Clive Cussler and Justin Scott
Published by Michael Joseph
ISBN 9780718184650

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

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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

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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

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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