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

Book Review: The King’s War, by Peter Conradi and Mark Logue

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_the_kings_war.jpgThe recent visit to New Zealand by Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, has rekindled the nation’s interest in things royal. This fascination has created images and articles across the years. When there is an Antipodean link, we become even more engrossed. Here is a book to nurture your curiosity on the part played by Lionel Logue.

Movie The King’s Speech, was released in 2010. It told the story of Lionel Logue, the Australian born therapist who worked with King George 6th on his acceptance speech. The King had a stutter which was never cured, but ably managed to allow him to address the public on countless occasions. Following the movie, the story was written by Peter Conradi, a Sunday Times journalist and Mark Logue, Grandson of Lionel. Both the movie and the book were a great success.

The King’s War is an opportunity for this established writing pair, to delve deeper into the story using material uncovered during the making of the movie. Mark inherited four large scrapbooks of information and personal family diaries and letters. This includes correspondence from the King to Lionel from 1926 when they first met, until 1952 when the King died. While the movie reaches a climax with the Coronation speech, this book looks at the growing relationship between Lionel and the King. As well as the letters, much of the information comes from the diaries kept by Lionel’s wife, Myrtle. These record the details of living in London during the war.

The actual book is an historical account of the Second World War and the events which impact on the Royal household, but also on the lives of those living through the Blitz, Dunkirk, the American support and finally peace. I liked the parallel between Logue’s involvement in every major event as he was called in to support and prepare the King for his public appearances, and the detail of family life for the Logue’s and their children, following these speeches.

It was not until after the death of George VI in 1952, that the role played by Logue became public. His was a private task and he always took care to respect this aspect of his work. While Logue had no academic qualifications, his skill in amateur dramatics enabled him to work successfully from his rooms in Harley St.

I enjoyed learning more about the warmth of the relationship between the King and Lionel. This book fills in all the gaps left by the earlier story, The King’s Speech. It is a story of an unusual relationship which we might have missed, but for Mark Logue’s desire to honour his grandfather, Lionel.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

The King’s War
By Peter Conradi and Mark Logue
Published by Quercus Publishing
ISBN 9781782065975

AWF Out-of-Season: An Evening with Lee Child

Lee Child is in Christchurch tonight with WORD Christchurch. Tickets are sold out. 

cv_past_tenseTo start, a confession: until yesterday, I’d never read a Lee Child story. And—here’s another, perhaps a more damning one—after watching both movies this week on Netflix, I was primed to not particularly like Reacher, either.

After all, this event was advertised as an evening with Lee Child and Jack Reacher. Reacher doesn’t form the backbone, but the entirety of Child’s writing work. And in the first Reacher movie (named simply Jack Reacher) there’s a scene in a bar that really prickled me. Reacher is approached by a woman, Sandy. And after a brief exchange, he tells her he’s not interested—by implying that she’s a prostitute (Reacher: I’m on a budget, Sandy. I can’t afford you. Sandy: I’m not a hooker. Reacher: Oh, well I really can’t afford you Sandy: Seriously, I work at the auto parts store. Reacher: What I mean is, the cheapest women tends to be the one you pay for.) Things escalate, Sandy gets mad and calls in reinforcements to beat Reacher up, and it ends in this little exchange: Sandy: I don’t mind the sight of blood. Reacher: When it means you’re not pregnant, anyway. So, you know, it was just one of those pop-culture moments that made the feminist in me squirm, recoil, and lose a little faith in humanity.

Perhaps not the introduction to Jack Reacher that the author intended. These gender-based reservations being said, there’s no doubt that Lee Child is a binge-worthy writer. He’s rare, too, in that he has written a character who has become so iconic in pop-culture that Reacher lives outside the page. In fact, Reacher boasts many famous fans—from Stephen King to Bill Clinton—and according to Child, Reacher has even made it to New Zealand parliament. (He mentioned a New Zealand politician was quoted quoting Reacher himself: “We must hope for the best and plan for the worst.”)

Child’s work is accessible, and Reacher is snarky enough to satisfy both people who like thrillers, and people who like thrillers ironically. And from the moment he stepped on stage at the Bruce Mason theatre, I knew it was going to be hard to love to hate him.

Perhaps because he’s well-versed in author events by now, or perhaps because he started his career with an eighteen-year stint as a presentation director for Granada Televison; either way, Lee Child has a very likeable way of being around people. He’s charming and funny, in a relaxed kind of way, and it was impossible not to get sucked in by his genuine concern for his readers.

pp_lee_child.jpg

Photo of Lee Child by Sigrid Estrada

After talking a little about his story—about how he was inspired to work in entertainment by the utter joy of Beatles mania (he talks about postwar Britain being horribly depressing for a child, up until the Beatles); his firing at 40 and the 7-mortgage payment severance payment period that he had to make that first book work; after that, he talked about the responsibility he has to serve his readers—and that was something that resonated with me.

Readers are the ones who create story, he said, a book doesn’t exist until it has been read. And it’s this audience-serving perspective that came through in almost everything he had to say; in his way of being. He didn’t mince words, or his feelings on literary fiction. When asked if he was interested in writing the next great novel—the next Moby Dick—Child replied “Sure, but did anyone read Moby Dick?” And it’s this attitude—of a book not truly existing until it’s been read; of a book not truly being great unless it is read—that could well be the secret sauce that has made him so successful.

It’s certainly his connection to his readers that inspired him to recently walk way from a lucrative movie deal. Talking about moving Reacher from film to TV, Child said that initially for him at least, the movies were peripheral—it was the books that mattered. But that seemed to change when he realized how unhappy his readers were that the hands-the-size-of-dinnerplates Reacher was portrayed by the normal, human-sized action movie actor of our generation, Tom Cruise. ‘I just felt I let the readers down. Readers wanted to see something closer to the books.’ And as to why he keeps writing a Reacher novel a year? He says it’s because he has an emotional contract with his readers. ‘I’m their servant.’

So, would I ever read a full Reacher novel? Well, I’m not going to be the first in the queue on release day to pick up the next one in the series. At least not yet. But—surprisingly, even to me—I will be adding Child to the top end of my holiday reading list. Partly because Child’s work is removed from the spheres of what I’d usually read (so wouldn’t in the slightest feel like work), but also because of how nice it was to see so many people engaged, enthusiastic and asking questions at an author event; how tempting the ultimate freedom fantasy of Jack Reacher is, and—most importantly—how genuine Child is with his audience.

Event attended and voluntarily reviewed by Emma Bryson

The latest in the Jack Reacher series is:
Past Tense
by Lee Child
Published by Penguin NZ
ISBN 9780593078204