Book Review: The Good People, by Hannah Kent

 

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_good_peopleHow do we know that our lives are ours to lead? What if bad luck arose from a past wrong? These are the questions at the heart of Hannah Kent’s new novel, The Good People.

Nora has lost her daughter and is raising her grandson. The boy, Micheal, was once a thriving toddler, but at four he is paralysed, twisted and incoherent. Then her husband also dies and she is left alone to struggle against the growing rumours of evil, faeries and unseen spirits.

Here is an old tale, but told in poetic language which evokes the mists and lanes of Ireland. It is a bleak existence where the community in the valley live close and watch carefully. The Priest, a man of Christian virtue and upright morals, has no time for discussions about the Good People. He offers little support to Nora, condemning her from the pulpit each week, but not prepared to support her. So Nora turns to the wise woman. It is Nance Roche who births the children and heals the ills of the valley folk. So it is Nance who offers what support she can – and it is Nance who pays the price.

Hannah Kent’s debut novel, Burial Rites, was well received in her native Australia. This, her second book, will not disappoint her readers. Evocative language beautifully captures the landscape: “Samhain Eve came upon the valley, announced by a wind that smelt of rotting oak leaves and the vinegar tang of rotting apples”. So we see decay is here to stay.

Likewise, Kent captures the language of the people with the twists of phrase and the lilt of the Irish. “But the people here do be having a spiritual temper, Father. Sure we all have faith in the things of the invisible world. We’re a most religious people.” So says the wise Nance to the Priest.

While at times the story moved slowly, I think this accurately communicated the twists and turns of life in the valley. It is a sad tale and things move with the seasons, in their own time. This is a beautiful read from an author who knows the landscape, the people and the history of Ireland in the 1820’s.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

The Good People
by Hannah Kent
Published by Picador
ISBN 9781743534908

 

Book Review: Girl Stuff for girls 8-12, by Kaz Cooke

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_girl_stuff_for_girls_aged_8-12Kaz Cooke is a very accessible and humourous Australian author and cartoonist who specialises in writing books on health and well being for women (and girls). I can still remember her hilarious descriptions of pregnancy in Up the Duff, which were fantastically described in both words and pictures. Her Kidwrangling guide to raising children was a natural purchase for me once I had children, and I now find myself in the position of having a child in the right age bracket for her latest book, Girl Stuff 8-12.

The first chapter leaps right on in with changes in your body during puberty. All descriptions are factual, simply explained and occasionally humourous. Kaz is very careful to ensure that the book outlines the wide variety in body types and experiences of puberty. My daughter found this chapter very interesting (actually, I did too). I particularly liked her suggestions on responding to comments from people about body changes. There are some excellently pragmatic comments around periods, and I sincerely wish that I had read this book when I was younger!

Later chapters deal a lot with social issues – such as friendships and bullying as well as ‘not-so-happy families.’ There is a great chapter on confidence, and positive self talk. I found her list for parents and girls regarding online safety useful and I will be adopting some of the tips for use. The back of the book has a very useful ‘more info’ section with really good websites and phone numbers (including New Zealand numbers). There is a theme throughout the book of getting good advice and information – such as avoiding advertising messages or asking adults how to manage privacy settings.

My daughter and I read the first chapter on body changes together. I knew that the book was hitting the mark when my daughter took off with the book and finished reading it very quickly by herself! She particularly liked the ‘real life’ comments made by girls throughout the book. When I spoke to her about it afterwards it was clear that she had understood the content, so I think that the book is well written in that respect.

The book does not really get into relationships or sex – there is a follow up book that covers those topics in greater depth. However, if you are after a factual book about puberty for younger girls then this is a great guide. I will definitely be getting the following book in the series.

Reviewed by Emma Rutherford

Girl Stuff for girls 8-12
by Kaz Cooke
Published by Viking Australia
ISBN 9780143573999

 

Book Review: The Book that Made Me, edited by Judith Ridge

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_book_that_made_meThis is an ideal book to leave around any home containing a book-lover, for idle moments while eating breakfast, while the kids are peacefully bickering about what to watch on the tablet, or falling asleep, or…

In this book, 32 authors tell their stories, in whatever form they see fit, about their love of reading and how their chosen book/s have made them who they are. When I began the introduction and realised it could have been written by me – I don’t remember when I couldn’t read, and I was well and truly into chapter books by age 6, this was a shoo-in for my reviewing pile!

My highlights were NZ writers’ Rachael Craw and Mandy Hager’s stories, not only because of their parallels with my own experiences – As a child I actually spent more years in Australia than in New Zealand – but because they each chose one book (a series in the case of Craw) and concentrated on its effect. Trixie Belden was a friend on sodden West Coast summer days for me as well as for Craw, and I remember the Sweet Valley books well, though Sweet Valley High was a bit racy for me!  And Hager’s pick, 1984, came along when I needed it, late in my high school years, changing my view of the world.

Shaun Tan’s illustrations throughout the book were ideal brief breaks between individual works, showing all creatures great and small reading, as acts of challenge, expansion, and everything in between.

Most of the authors meditate at some point on the link between reading and writing, but Simon French I think says it best. “As an adult writer, I came to understand how much the unfolding skills as an author had been indelibly fashioned by encountering so much in the way of quality reading; that reading and writing are so eloquently knotted together and dependent on one another.”

This book has seen me add  20 more books that I’d never even heard of to my reading list. It expanded  my understanding of the works of those authors I had read, and my awareness of those I might be interested in reading. And in a nice double-up effect, it made me aware of more brilliant books that are waiting out there for me to be transformed by.

I recommend this book to every bookseller, and book-lovers everywhere. It would make a particularly brilliant gift for a teenage reader. And a range of the books suggested, and those by the authors that suggested them would make a wonderful window for NZ Bookshop Day!

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

The Book that Made Me
edited by Judith Ridge
Published by Walker Books
ISBN 9781922244888

Book Review: Breathing Under Water, by Sophie Hardcastle

Available today in bookshops nationwide.

cv_breathing_under_waterBreathing Under Water is a beautifully written, lyrically told tale that takes a tragic and heartbreaking turn. The language is rich and poetic, immersing the reader until they too, drown in the story. I was with Grace as she began her dark, downward spiral, dealing with her grief in a manner that was both destructive to her and the relationships and lives of those she cared for. I was her conscience, wishing she would see what she was doing to herself, wishing that someone would step in and say, “Enough!”

Grace was born 12 minutes after her brother and for her whole life she has felt to be living in his shadow. He was always the golden child, the poster boy surfer, the glint of pride in his father’s eye. But not only that, he was also the spirit, the heart of the family, the spark that kept them all together. So, when tragedy strikes, everything begins to fall apart, starting with Grace…

With its strong Australian vibes, and the passion the prose shows for the ocean, this is sure to strike a chord with teenagers down under. It is emotionally powerful, eloquently written and deeply immersive. For teenagers, I believe, it is important to see how shattered one’s life can become – but how it is still possible to begin to pick up the pieces, mend the cracks and seek renewal. It is a story of grief, and how we deal with it. It is a story of love, and what challenges it. And it is a story of humanity.

It is at times wild, and does feature drugs and sexual references (although those are fairly subtle), as well as some pretty dark themes. As such it is more fitting to a somewhat-mature teen audience – but fans of John Green and Melina Marchetta should devour it greedily. The writing style, likewise, takes a little getting used to – at times it is more poetry than prose – but I found it an evocative and compelling read.

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

Breathing Under Water
by Sophie Hardcastle
Published by Hachette Australia
ISBN 9780733634857

Book Review: The Dry, by Jane Harper

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_dryThis is a crime novel which grips from the opening chapter. Forget the grime-filled American streets, the bleak northern English towns. Here we have small town Australia, the town of Kiewarra, with drought on the farms and drought in the outlook of the residents.

Aaron Falk was brought up in this town and returns to attend the funeral of his childhood mate. The circumstances of his departure and the links to recent events in the town, form the basis of this grim tale. Here the prejudices run deep and memories of past wrongs are still vivid to the townsfolk. While Aaron is now a Federal Police Investigator, based in Melbourne, this visit is unofficial and he has no intention of staying or of looking deeper at the circumstances of his friend’s death.

His visit is intended to last one day, but at the request of an old friend who is not convinced of the cause of death, he stays. Childhood memories and current events show connections which Aaron cannot dismiss as coincidence. Are the three deaths really murder-suicide, and why was a young child left alive?

This is a first novel for Jane Harper, but the superb interplay of character, plot, past and present, is handled like a pro. She manages to weave images of drought through setting and characters. It is not a self-conscious construct, but a genuine feel for the land and the community. The unpublished manuscript was awarded the 2015 Victorian Premier’s Award.

I loved this book. It seemed to capture the unspoken feelings which are so much a part of Australian and New Zealand small towns. The pioneering forbears left us with a work ethic which results in unspoken acceptance of tragedy. Aaron Falk challenges this and I am left hoping for another story about him from Jane Harper.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

The Dry
by Jane Harper
Published by Macmillan Aus
ISBN 9781743548059

Book Review: An Isolated Incident, by Emily Maguire

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_an_isolated_incidentSet in small-town New South Wales, this is a gripping tale of unexplained murder, love, jealousy and the doggedness of some to find answers.

Chris finds herself at the centre of a murder investigation: that of her beautiful younger sister, Bella. Bella appeared to be universally loved, especially in the care home where she worked. Chris is the easy-going older sister – too easy-going, according to some. Chris has learned the hard way to be persistent and independent, trusting few in her search for answers about her sister’s brutal death.

Also drawn in to the story is  young reporter May Norman, trying to use this high-profile, public attention murder to make her name. May finds herself unable to leave without a satisfactory conclusion.

An Isolated Incident shows the attention to detail that has earned Emily Maguire awards for her earlier novels. She captures the details of small town life in Australia through speech, mannerisms and the casual friendliness which are features of Aussie culture, but may also hide a monster.

This is a psychological thriller which will keep you reading to the very final paragraph. I look forward to more quality reading from Emily Maguire.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

An Isolated Incident
by Emily Maguire
Published by Picador
ISBN  9781743538579

Book Review: My Sister Rosa, by Justine Larbalestier

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_my_sister_rosaMy Sister Rosa, the latest from YA author Justine Larbalestier, is a superlative example of how damn good today’s YA fiction can be. Engaging from the first page, packed with a diverse and distinct cast of characters, smart, real, and insanely creepy, My Sister Rosa is a psychological thriller where the character that makes you squirm with fear is a ten year old blond girl with dimples—a Shirley Temple psychopath.

The story is told from the point of view of teenager Che, who loves his little sister Rosa even as he worries about her lack of empathy, her manipulativeness, and her tendency to use her formidable intelligence to play ‘pranks’ on people—pranks that start off as not quite harmless (like stealing a passport) and escalate to alarming, near lethal heights. The tension in this novel is skilfully ratcheted up, chapter by chapter, to the point where you start to fear for the safety of almost any character Rosa talks to. Just knowing that Rosa has found out that one of Che’s friends is afraid of heights made my stomach churn.

One of Larbalestier’s strengths is clearly her characterisation. Her portrayal of Rosa teeters right on the line between truly creepy and melodramatic, a tough balancing act but one she pulls off to uncanny, sinister effect. Despite Rosa being the flashier character, I was (even) more impressed by Larbalestier’s drawing of Che. Here was a deeply felt representation of the kind of young man I could recognise from everyday life: close to his friends, self-conscious about his acne, yearning or home, yearning (and horny) for a girlfriend, an inveterate texter and messager on his phone, and full of love and care for his family. Despite his family being any other family’s worst nightmare.

In general, this novel (like so many others) is shaped such that we steadily climb a steepening slope of tension towards the climax, and then we topple down the other side into the denouement as the tension relaxes and all our remaining questions are answered. The building of tension and ramp up to the climax are handled expertly, but the handling of the climax and denouement seem slightly off somehow. Without giving too much away, the climax seems somehow less forceful than one might expect, and given how much our tensions have been ramped up,  the denouement feels a little too extended (perhaps understandably, given how many plot threads needed to be tied up).

Nevertheless, My Sister Rosa is a great read—well-written, fast-paced, exciting, engaging and eminently re-readable. This book is a keeper.

Reviewed by Feby Idrus

My Sister Rosa
By Justine Larbalestier
Published by Allen and Unwin
ISBN  9781760112226

 

Book Review: Thicker than Water, by Brigid Kemmerer

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_thicker_than_waterThicker Than Water is a gripping psychological thriller with a supernatural twist. The narrative is shared between the two teenage protagonists: Thomas Bellweather and Charlotte Rooker.

Thomas is bad boy personified; not only is he devilishly good-looking, but he’s also the prime suspect in his mother’s murder. Charlotte finds herself drawn to him, despite the somewhat extreme measures her three brothers (all policemen) will go to keep the two of them apart. Thomas, adamant in his innocence and fighting through his grief, finds himself bullied, taunted and maligned. He has no support from anyone, except for his mother’s new husband, Stan, and Charlotte. And, as events unfold and darker truths begin to surface, it seems that support too will crumble.

It is a powerful and somewhat intense book, with events seeing Thomas spiral further and further from redemption and making the reader strongly question his innocence. Charlotte, in typical teenage-girl protagonist fashion continues to put herself at risk, ignoring the well-meaning (if somewhat overbearing) advice from her brothers, and seeking out this potentially dangerous newcomer. Meanwhile, Thomas battles a maelstrom of emotions ranging from grief to anger and to despair. Then, the two make a discovery and the tale takes a (somewhat, slightly) supernatural twist.

Things, it turns out, are not all they seem, and Charlotte’s instant, and naïve, infatuation may not be entirely natural. I am still not sure I feel entirely comfortable with the romantic overtones and the conclusion but that is, is it not, the mark of a good psychological thriller?

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

Thicker than Water
by Brigid Kemmerer
Published by Allen & Unwin Children’s Books
ISBN 9781743318638

Book Review: The Lake House, by Kate Morton

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_lake_houseThe present meets the past in an unlikely coincidence of events in this recent novel by the latest most successful Australian author you may, like me, not have heard of. Looking at her profile, that her books have sold more than 10 million world wide, and that she has been on the New York Times bestseller lists, I have definitely missed something. So I was very much looking forward to getting myself lost in this novel, set like her previous novels, somewhere in Cornwall.

Cornwall would appear to be not the only common factor – in her past novels, there is a mystery of some sort surrounding people who live/have lived in Cornwall, often something/someone abandoned, a family link from the present to the past, and a modern day character, usually female, going through some sort of crisis who ends up reconciling or solving whatever the mystery may be. A winning formula, and fully embraced in this latest novel.

Ms Morton is a master at weaving her plot, the many strands, threads and tenuous links that keep the reader involved and constantly wondering what the next reveal will be. The opening pages, in August 1933, have an unnamed female traipsing through mud and rain in the early dawn, digging a hole with a spade, burying a box in it, and covering the evidence. The perfect setting for a mystery.

The multi-faceted plot essentially focuses on two people. Alice Edevane, now very elderly and living in London, is a prolific and successful writer of whodunnits. Alice has never got over the disappearance of her 11-month-old brother Theo at a Midsummer’s Eve party in June 1933. The party was at her family’s historical country house in Cornwall. She harbours suspicions about people who were involved in the disappearance, but with no body or evidence of foul play ever turning up, this is actually the biggest mystery of her life.

Seventy years after said disappearance, Sadie Sparrow, a young woman detective, is going through a particularly difficult time in her work. On leave visiting her grandfather in Cornwall, she stumbles upon the old house, now derelict and deserted. She immediately senses that something happened here, and she takes it upon herself to solve the long-standing mystery of the missing child.

The plot development, with its red herrings, taking the reader up the garden path and back down again, is superbly done – it really and truly is a mystery, and many many pages are read as each twist and turn is fully explored, then either discarded or put into the memory bank for later use. And so you keep turning the pages, to find out what happened to this family, way back in June 1933.

Alice, a young girl of enormous intellect and imagination, passionately in love with Ben the gardener, was sixteen at the time. She had an elder sister Deborah, a free-spirited younger sister Clemmie, and a baby brother Theo.  Their parents are Eleanor and Anthony who are doing their utmost to deal with the fallout of Anthony’s WWI experiences in France – clearly post traumatic stress, but of course undiagnosed and not fully understood at that time.

As well as the post-war trauma, the loss of a child is a recurring theme. Not only with the disappearance of young Theo, but also still birth, adoption, child abandonment, what a mother will do to protect her child, and what happens to a mother in the protection of her child. These themes are sensitively and honestly handled, and all lend credence to the storyline.

I was disappointed, however, with a couple of elements of the story. The cover, as beautiful and enticing as it is, doesn’t appear to have anything to do with the story. It is also a tad too long: at 591 pages, I had trouble holding it up in bed – but more than that, I thing an editor could have trimmed 150 pages off it without losing anything of the storytelling or mystery solution. The major problem for me, given the twists and turns in the narrative, is how neatly and tidily everything is resolved at the end. And so I shut this book with a frustrating big bang and thought well, after 591 pages of tension and expectation, this was just too happily ever after for words.

For all that, if you are looking for a great holiday read by the pool/beach/lake, this will do very nicely.

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

The Lake House
by Kate Morton
Published by Allen & Unwin
ISBN 9781742376516