Book Review: The Sparsholt Affair, by Alan Hollinghurst

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_The-sparsholt_affair.jpgThe Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst is an ambiguous tale of the permeating aftershocks of encounters with the charming David Sparsholt: war-hero, strong-man, closet gay man prior to the British sexual liberation of 1967. Set over five parts, numerous narrators give us peep-hole insights to the influence and lasting touches of Sparsholt, and cleverly leaves the unspeakable to occur behind blinds, during blackouts (of both varieties), and between parts. Be warned: the Sparsholt Affair is not entirely what it seems.

We are first introduced to David Sparsholt as an entry in Freddie Green’s memoir of Oxford during the war, in ‘that brief time between sunset and blackout when you could see into other people’s rooms’. Spied by Green and his contemporaries Evert Dax and Peter Goyle, Sparsholt’s impressive aesthetic ignites a male infatuation that will both mire Sparsholt’s life and carry the novel. Sparsholt is an engineer and athlete training for the RAF, and is embroiled in sexual scandal from the outset thanks to the ‘rhythmical creaking’ from his room during visits from his to-be wife, Connie. Sparsholt’s blatant heterosexuality seems to only fuel the intrigue as Green, Dax, and Goyle each fall into pursuit of Sparsholt in their own ways. Between the suggestive war time black-outs, this competition is won by Dax, and recorded as told to Green. Sparsholt is doused in secrecy and scandal, spoken about in the same way neighbours may trade gossip in whispers before an inevitable disgrace.

Leaving Sparsholt’s war to occur in the part break, the novel now jumps to 1965, where Freddie Green’s literary journal has been replaced with a contemporary yet equally insightful narrative from the perspective of Johnny, Sparsholt’s adolescent son. Sparsholt is now a war-hero and established industrialist, married to Connie. Together with Connie, Johnny, French exchange student Bastien, and the Haxbys, the story moves to summertime in Cornwall. The Cornish setting allows air to two flames: that between David Sparsholt and the noisome Clifford Haxby, conducted in secrecy yet with a recklessness that makes one’s stomach turn somersaults, and simultaneously for Johnny – the typically sexually repressed English teen – who is besotted with his liberal French counterpart, Bastien. Should Johnny not have been so consumed by his own pubescent crush, he might have had warning of the scandal his family was on course for.

The story jumps again, this time into Evert Dax’s house in London post the 1967 decriminalisation of homosexuality. We re-connect with Evert as Johnny Sparsholt, now a strapping young gay man, enters Evert’s house as an art restorer. Oblivious to the relationship once shared between his father and the paunchy old art enthusiast, Johnny is both eager to gain a place in the gay scene based at Cranley Gardens and naïve about the intentions of those around him. We learn that the actual Sparsholt affair that was so pregnant in the previous setting has been and gone between parts, and we turn the pages in eagerness for a climax, trembling for the revelations that might come with it.

But Hollinghurst holds back, denying us any juicy details, giving us only scraps: ‘money, power, gay shenanigans…it had everything!’ This is somewhat frustrating, as up until this point the reader has been led to believe the explosiveness of the affair was the carrot we’d been patiently chasing. Once the disappointment abates, however, the Sparsholt Affair morphs away from a legacy instead into a story of life’s vice and drama, particularly for gay men in a liberated London. It is a generational comparison, pulling a colourful contrast of experience from each side of 1967.

By the 90s we are led by Lucy, the child (born in the part-break) of Johnny and a lesbian couple who had requested him to ‘do a baby for us’. We see Johnny finally in the new millennium, where parenting and dating apps have again revolutionized the gay landscape. Johnny does his best to adapt, as a successful portrait painter who suffers love, loss, and reincarnation.

As a first-time reader of Hollinghurst, his tendency to let pivotal scenes happen between the parts can leave you feeling crestfallen, but the Sparsholt Affair withstands these temporary disappointments as one begins to recognize the larger, comedic, and charming design of the story.

Reviewed by Abbie Treloar

The Sparsholt Affair
by Alan Hollinghurst
Published by Pan Macmillan
ISBN 9781509844937

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Book Review: A Long Way From Home, by Peter Carey

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_a-long_way_from_home.jpgThere is so much life in this novel, such exuberance and energy. It was a delight to read, at times flamboyant in its language, always deliciously descriptive and vivid, rich and colourful from beginning to end. How does one make the arid and rugged landscape of Australia lush and stunning? I don’t know, but somehow Peter Carey, twice winner of the Booker Prize, as well as numerous other awards, does.

It’s a bit of a romp, but there is also a serious side to this novel, essentially about two people finding themselves, discovering who they really are, emerging from the restraints society has placed on them. This is 1950’s Australia, still dealing with the consequences of British colonialism, dealing not terribly successfully with the Aboriginal people, and simply trying to make it, to get ahead in life, make a better life than one’s parents had.

Irene Bobs is married to Titch Bobs, the most successful Ford car salesman in his region of Victoria. They have two young children, life is pretty good, except for Titch’s appalling father Dan. To get away from Dan, Irene and Titch move the family to the town of Bacchus Marsh, 33 miles from Melbourne and home town of Peter Carey himself.

Irene is one clever woman, under rated and under-appreciated as many women in post-war Australia were. She thinks a Holden dealership is the future for her and Titch, but there is the problem of raising enough money to open their own dealership. Winning the Redex Trial, a wild and crazy car race all around the perimeter of Australia would set them up perfectly. Irene is also a most talented driver, she loves to drive fast, by the seat of her pants, and she knows they have a chance. So she enters herself and Titch, and their navigator Willie Bachhuber.

Willie is an intriguing young man, only 27 years old, a school teacher who loves geography, a failure in love – he has also got himself into a spot of bother at his latest school. He happens to live next door to the Bobs family and is slowly pulled into their slightly chaotic family life. Recognising his incredible talent with maps, geography and anything to do with direction, Irene talks him into becoming the navigator. And so the scene is set for an endurance test, not only in the physical race sense, but also in a whole lot of other ways, as Willie and Irene face some pretty tough personal challenges along the way.

Maps and navigation become an analogy for Willie’s search for himself. While in the car race, Willie is confronted with some very big life issues, literally turning everything he knew about himself upside down. It is at this point the story sort of veers off the car race path, and into Aboriginal culture, the dream time, pathways, the long-term effects of British imperialism. I actually found of lot of this hard to enjoy reading. Much like a map it meandered, had some dead ends, lost threads, strange illustrations.  I am sure a true-blue Aussie would get far more of this than I did!

However, this book is still a great yarn from a master storyteller. There are some wonderful characters – Irene is marvellous – loving mother, wife, unbelievably feisty and determined, she is the heart and soul of the book. The novel becomes more about Willie, but it is Irene that holds everything and everyone together.

Within the fast action and high energy level of the narrative there is a serious side, in that people aren’t always what they seem, and that family secrets always, always, always cause more harm in the long run than any thread of good the short term may offer.

by Felicity Murray

A Long Way From Home
by Peter Carey
Published by Faber & Faber
ISBN 9780143787075

Book Review: Force of Nature, by Jane Harper

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cv_force_of_natureThis is the much-anticipated second novel from Jane Harper. Her debut, The Dry, won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript and the film rights were snapped up. Jane Harper lives in Melbourne and has worked as a print journalist in Australia and the UK for thirteen years.  I loved her debut and was keen to see if her second novel was as engaging. I was not disappointed.

In Force of Nature, we once again meet Aaron Faulk, a Federal Police Agent working in the rugged outback of Australia (he in The Dry, and too good to be a one-novel wonder). He is asked to help to search for a woman missing in the bush. While five women embark on a corporate team building exercise, only four make it out three days later. For Faulk, this is more than a missing person case, as the woman is his key source for an investigation into her employer’s dealings.

Faulk is a man troubled by his past, a little of which was exposed in The Dry. We again glimpse his background through a series of tramping maps left to him by his late father. These maps include the area of the search, and Faulk is forced to recall his memories and ] re-evaluate his ideas about his father.

The Australian landscape is very much a part of this story. The bush, the mountains and the struggle to exist in a small town. I like Harper’s style. She keeps the pace up but manages to capture patterns of speech and the guilt of survivors. As the story unravels, we discover all is not as it first appears. There are tensions within the family company, and suspicions among the staff. This is the stuff of an excellent crime novel.

Force of Nature is a great Australian crime novel because we are drawn into a world where land and man work together to reveal the truth. This is the Christmas novel that will be passed around our family and never actually make it back to me.

by Kathy Watson

Force of Nature
by Jane Harper
Published by Macmillan
ISBN 9781743549094

Book Review: The Language of Thorns: Midnight Tales and Dangerous Magic, by Leigh Bardugo

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cv_the_language_of_thorns.pngNo. 1 New York Times bestselling author, Leigh Bardugo, has charmed the world of fantasy readers yet again with a new book of delightful stories. The Language of Thorns: Midnight Tales and Dangerous Magic, beautifully illustrated by Sara Kipin, is set in Bardugo’s imaginarium, the Grishaverse.

The six stories, three of which have been previously published, explore the labyrinthine world of desire, love, loss and sacrifice. For most of its inhabitants, the ever-human experience of want keeps them in a state of constant wandering.

‘Ayama and the Thorn Wood’ tells the story of the young Ayama, a girl whose wise tales change the heart of a monster and a kingdom’s future. ‘The Too-Clever Fox‘ concerns the perilous life of an animal community at the mercy of hunters. In ‘The Witch of Duva’, we see a fresh retelling of Hansel and Gretel by the Brothers Grimm, where the magic of the woods brings Nadya to see the bitter truth. In ‘Little Knife, a powerful river spirit deals with the ravages of desire and its damning effects. Similarly, in ‘The Soldier Prince’, a Clocksmith and his clever creation discover the curse of obsession. The final tale, ‘When Water Sang Fire’, is strongly evocative of the The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen. It tells the story of two sildroher, Signy and Ulla, whose enchanted voices can summon storms and determine the fate of creatures from the land and sea.

I highly commend Bardugo’s writing. The originality of her tales lies in their plot twists and stark thematic and image contrasts, which liken fantasy to the thorny world of reality wherein pain and beauty are inseparable. I was hooked at the very beginning of each story.

It helps that the stories in The Language of Thorns: Midnight Tales and Dangerous Magic can be read on their own. They form an excellent starting point for potential sojourners of the Grishaverse: home to The Shadow and Bone Trilogy and The Six of Crows Duology. Step inside, the dark woods await . . .

Reviewed by Azariah Alfante

The Language of Thorns: Midnight Tales and Dangerous Magic
by Leigh Bardugo
Published by Hachette
ISBN 9781510104518

Book Review: City of Crows, by Chris Womersley

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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

 

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