Book Review: A Crime in the Family, by Sacha Batthyany

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_a_crime_in_the_familyThis book was an intriguing choice from the review pile. The author, Sacha Batthyany, is a journalist, born in Switzerland to Hungarian parents. He belongs to a once aristocratic, wealthy and powerful Hungarian family who lost everything in the Second World War, and in the Communist takeover immediately afterwards. Like many wealthy families, his grandmother’s family chose to flee, in this case to Switzerland. Sometime before the war, his great uncle, Count Batthyany, had married Margit Thyssen-Bornesmisza, sister of Baron Thyssen-Bornesmisza, billionaire Swiss industrialist and famous art collector, and they lived in the castle the family owned in Rechnitz, a town near the Austrian-Hungary border.

Quite by chance, around 2007, Sacha found out that Margit was involved in a massacre of 180 Jews that took place while she was hosting a party one night towards the end of the war at the family castle. Amongst the guests were German aristocrats and SS officers, as well as local officials. This is the first he has heard of such an appalling event, naturally he must find out more, and so his journey begins, the result of which is this memoir.

Once I had finished reading this book, I tracked down via Google what may be the original article that propelled Sacha into investigating and answering the questions about his family’s past. It is clear that the writer of the article, David Litchfield, does not have a high opinion of Sacha Batthyany, but that is another story and just as intriguing as this book. Links to the article and the writer of it are at the bottom of this review.

After so many years, so much death, records destroyed or altered, so many people refusing to speak, it is very hard to know what is the truth and what isn’t. Hungary being behind the Iron Curtain for so long has not helped the dissemination of information, and with virtually no-one from that time still alive, maybe the truth will never come out. However, this does not detract at all from a most interesting and at times very emotional journey that the author must take to track down what his family members did or did not do.

Sacha has a number of sources in his search. Firstly, his father is still alive, and as a small boy lived in the castle, although too young to remember what happened in 1944. He is most reluctant to speak about what happened, the rumours, any coverup. Sacha’s grandmother, Maritta, kept a diary during the terrible war years, and it is in reading this that Sacha comes across another tragic and violent episode involving a local Jewish family. Sacha again has to question everything he has heard about his family and what went on during those years.

His investigations uncover the daughter of the Jewish family, Agnes, now very elderly and living in South America with her own daughters. She was a friend of Sacha’s grandmother and also kept a diary during the war years, survived Auschwitz and its aftermath, but never knew what had happened to her parents or her brother. The family very generously allow Sacha to read the diaries, and eventually he is able to return to Agnes and tell her exactly what happened to the rest of her family.

Secrets, secrets and more secrets. As the years pass, the survivors of the war years are dying. In many cases they take the secrets of what happened to them, to their communities, betrayals, good deeds and bad, to the grave with them. It was a truly terrible time, and who can blame them for wanting to bury it all as deep as they can. That their children and now grandchildren are beginning their own investigations is producing many many books of this ilk such as The Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund de Vaal. Sacha Batthyany is clearly very troubled about what his family did or omitted to do during the war, and the veil of silence he appears to keep coming up against is difficult for him to bear.

This book is as much about the author’s journey of discovery as it is about what actually happened. At least two trips to the town of Rechnitz, one with his elderly and reluctant father, another to Buenos Aires, and weekly visits with his psychoanalyst are all carefully documented. He actually struggles more with what happened to Agnes’s family than he does the massacre. This may be because the massacre has been well-documented, accurately or otherwise, but the deaths of Agnes’s parents not at all. His ‘family’ guilt almost consumes him, and as annoying as I found them, the weekly sessions with Dr Strassberg have their own reveal.

Sacha Batthyany is just one of many thousands of descendants of people who have lived through terrible times such as the Second World War. There will be many, many other stories such as what he has uncovered, and it is good that we get to hear of them, wondering what we would ourselves do in such situations that aren’t really all that long ago. For these reasons alone it is worth reading, and I am putting this into my book club, because I know it will lead to all sorts of discussions.

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

A Crime in the Family
by  Sacha Batthyany
Published by Quercus
ISBN 9781786480552

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: Middle School – Dog’s Best Friend, by James Patterson

Available on 6 April in bookshops nationwide.

cv_middle_school_dogs_best_friendI enjoyed this book. I think that I may have read one or two of James Patterson’s books in the past, but this is my first from this series. I really enjoyed the cartoon strips that the author and illustrator incorporated into this chapter book for preteens.

Middle School: Dog’s Best Friend is about boy named Rafe Khatchadorian who is just trying to survive middle school. In this novel he starts his own dog walking business to buy a WormHole Premium Multi-Platform Game Box (and also help out his family). But as most stories go this all turns to custard as some new kids turn up, whom he just can’t seem to get out of his mind. Along with this, he faces his sister being moved up into all his classes.

I really enjoyed the nail-biting suspense at the end of each chapter. I would recommend this book for anyone over 9 or someone trying to get out of reading so many comics.

Reviewed by Isabelle Ralston (14)

Middle School – Dog’s Best Friend
by James Patterson
Published by Arrow
ISBN 9781784753900

 

 

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

Book Review: The Genius of Bugs, by Simon Pollard

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_genius_of_booksImagine you are a bug living in a bug world, where a blade of grass is as tall as a tree! All around you are other bugs with secret weapons on search and destroy missions. Lurking behind every leaf are mini-masters of disguise waiting to catch you out.

Bugs have been on earth for almost 400 million years. They were here before the dinosaurs and are still here, 65 million years after dinosaurs became extinct. What these critters do is really clever. The genius of bugs is revealed through their use of weapons, feats of engineering, scams and deceptions, and incredible teamwork.

This is a great book to introduce children to the magic of bugs. The use of in-built weapons by the Bombardier beetle, the marvel of miniature engineering of the Dragonfly and how a Portia jumping spider uses its exceptional intelligence to hunt other spiders.

I sat down with 5 ½-year-old Abby to read this book with her. We pored over the pages with her exclaiming ‘ooh yuk’a lot, but fascinated all the same. Afterwards, we took her magnifying glass outside with her net and bug catcher to see what we could find. We found a fine collection of moths, flies, spiders and snails, examined them at length and finally released them back into the wild.

This is a great book with lots of information and facts about bugs. It was great to see a page dedicated to genius bugs from New Zealand, and over all this is a great book for the aspiring biologist.

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

The Genius of Bugs
by Simon Pollard
Published by Te Papa Press
ISBN 9780994136213

Book Review: Mister Hamilton, by John Dickson

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_mister_hamiltonMister Hamilton
is John Dickson’s first poetry collection in eighteen years, and it is clear he has honed his poetry well. The precision of Dickson’s writing is intense. It’s like being placed in a whole new country with so much to see, and there is an amazing rush in his writing as he shows us his world and more.

The story, like many stories, begins at home in New Zealand. ‘Plainsong’ is one of the first poems in Mister Hamilton. Often, images of home can become cliché after reading them over and over again. However, Dickson brings clarity to this poem with unique images that call your attention and make you stop for a moment. He describes ‘Southland’s slow intestinal rivers / laden with manuka dust / And my detachment from anything plain.’ Dickson perfectly captures the feeling of being homesick: a background noise that is always present, pervasive. Something that ‘smoulders still’despite all the time that has passed.

My favourite in the collection is the poem Something Else. While reading it, I wanted to speed up in anticipation of the words to come, as well as slow down in order to take everything in. I think what makes this poem so effective and enjoyable is how it brings you into its rush of words and images. Although it may seem fragmented at first, there is story underlying it all, with a selection of images that recur and words that repeat. At its heart, the poem tells of a lost girl and her father, who carries an ‘anguished stare’in his eyes. It is how Dickson uses this story to open up a certain world that makes it so interesting. There is a lost girl but she is also so much more than the girl others see on the six o’clock news. She is also the girl falling, the girl full of rage, the girl who finally stays silent and lets the snow enfold her.

Mister Hamilton is also a collection that’s very conscious of the rhythms of poetry. In Dickson’s own notes at the back of the book, he explicitly states: ‘I attempted to compose verses that would not only use the speech rhythms of other people as well as my own, but also match the rhythms with various metrical patterns’. ‘Sixties relic surveys his lawn’ is a satisfying poem that seems to sway with a steady rhythm, and captures the methodical nature of the exercise. The final verse in the poem mimics the motion of someone working back and forth while mowing the lawn: ‘you mow your fescue that way / way this fescue your mow you / you mow your fescue that way’.

As the dust settled from the rush of being brought into all of Dickson’s various worlds, I quietly finished Mister Hamilton. And I was left with an urge to go back and read some of my favourites in the collection again, and an additional urge to write my own. The words in some of these poems seem to crest like waves as you read them, and they rush with a mix of images that seek to both inspire and question.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Mister Hamilton
by John Dickson
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408558

 

Book Review: Awatea’s Treasure, by Fraser Smith

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_awateas_treasure.jpgThis book is a great delight to read.

Awatea, the main character, has been sent to stay with his grandparents and uncles in the country because his dad is not well. The story is set in the far north of New Zealand, and the atmosphere created by Fraser Smith’s writing is very credible and evocative of life in a reasonably remote area.

I was drawn in to this book from the outset. The uncles, prone to fairly rough practical joking, were scarily good and set the scene well for the development of the book.
It has everything – the already mentioned scary uncles, relaxed but firm grandparents, an empty – possibly haunted – house next door, and beaches and forests to explore, neighbours (a long way away) with a nutty parrot and an unseen son. Magic, adventure, what’s not to like?

It’s an excellent story and I don’t want to give away too much detail, but Awatea finds a tree house with some things which surely belonged to the boy who built it – but who is he? Where is he? Is the treasure really valuable? And where does the guy with the horse fit in?
Just read it! I am sure that like you won’t put it down till you have finished.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

Awatea’s Treasure
by Fraser Smith
Huia Publishers 2016
ISBN 9781775502944