Book Review: A Dream of Italy, by Nicky Pellegrino

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_a_dream_of_italyBestselling author Nicky Pellegrino’s latest novel, A Dream of Italy, is a celebration of some of the most delightful things in life: travel, food, and love.

The book addresses the present-day phenomenon of small towns facing abandonment in the “Old World” of Europe. Salvio Valentini, mayor of Montenello in southern Italy, is determined to revive his “ghost town.” He comes up with a simple, albeit ambitious, plan: sell the houses of Montenello for one euro. In renovating and inhabiting these abodes, the prospective buyers would be contributing to the restoration of the entire mountain town and its future. This project is not the only big issue in the life of the young mayor. His mother Donna Carmela is now urging him to marry and have children, desiring to be nonna (“grandma”) to the future generation of Montenello.

The emails start pouring in. In London, the illustrator Mimi Wilson is looking for a change. Recently divorced, and with her sons now at university, she comes across a newspaper article about Salvio’s proposal for Montenello. The same advertisement reaches Edward Roberts in Sydney, who loves all things Italian, while his Italian partner, Gino Mancuso, does not. For the young relief teacher Elise Hartman, who lives with her partner Richard Lynch in Bristol, Montenello might just be the chance to get on the property ladder. All three look towards this curious, historical town for a fresh, new start.

Pellegrino’s storytelling is rich and tasteful. She weaves together the details of Italian life through the eyes of locals and foreigners, describing the unique gastronomic offerings of the local trattoria, a traditional Italian eatery. Through its narration, setting, and characterisation, the novel also reflects on the contemporary tensions between tradition and modernity.

Pellegrino’s reverie of a novel would appeal to anyone who has read, or even watched the cinematic adaptations of, Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. Pellegrino’s A Dream of Italy marries both foreign and familiar experiences. Italy is and always will be a dreamscape on tourist brochures and travel websites. For others it can be a true home.

Reviewed by Azariah Alfante

A Dream of Italy
by Nicky Pellegrino
Published by Hachette NZ
ISBN ‎9781409178989

Book Review: The Peacock Summer, by Hannah Richell

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cv_the_peacock_summer.jpgThe Peacock Summer is the latest novel by bestselling Australian-born and England-based author, Hannah Richell. Narrated in the first person, the story centres on the lives of two women, Lillian and Maggie.

In the prime of her life, Lillian finds herself trapped. Encouraged by her aging guardian, Lucinda Daunt, and out of concern for her invalid sister Helena’s medical expenses, Lillian marries the wealthy investor, Charles Oberon. At twenty-six years old, she has become a porcelain beauty in a delicate dollhouse, burrowed within the paintings, ornaments, and collected objects of Charles’s manor. Now Lillian must navigate a world of cake tins and floral dresses, of high-society men and their wives with their expectations and illusory glories.

At the hands of her manipulative husband, Lillian becomes the victim of domestic abuse, which leads to her barrenness. The pains of maternal yearning and a loveless marriage plunge her into a world of deep loneliness. Nevertheless, what keeps Lillian going is Albie, her stepson, whose playfulness and curiosity remind her constantly of the joys of living and loving. Life takes a dramatic turn that summer, when Lillian meets the young artist, Jack Fincher, whom Charles has commissioned to paint the nursery.

Fast forward to the present day: At age twenty-six, Maggie Oberon feels like she is going nowhere. Her parents, Amanda and Albie, left her at a young age, going their separate ways. The rock of Maggie’s whole life was her grandmother, Lillian. Now that the aged Lillian is very ill, Maggie travels from Australia to Lilian’s English manor, Cloudesley, at the foot of the Chiltern Hills. As Maggie learns of Lillian’s story, she finds that they are very much alike. Lillian reminds Maggie about the brevity of life and the necessity, therefore, to live boldly and fully.

The Peacock Summer is a call to the genuine celebration of life and family. Richell’s prose is highly descriptive, tender, and vibrant. The story touches on the poignant themes of parenthood, loss, longing, and the indefatigability of authentic, sacrificial love. I strongly recommend this excellent book for the upcoming spring and summer months.

Reviewed by Azariah Alfante

The Peacock Summer
by Hannah Richell
Published by Hachette
ISBN 9780733640438

Book Review: The Man Who Would Not See, by Rajorshi Chakraborti

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cv_the_man_who_would_not_seeWellington-based Indian author, Rajorshi Chakraborti, is presenting his latest novel in this year’s Auckland Writers Festival. The Man Who Would Not See, a current national bestseller, tells the story of two brothers who attempt to heal their severed past.

Ever since their paths crossed in Calcutta in 1986, Abhay and his older half-brother Ashim (Dada) have been the best of the friends, along with Ashim’s sister, Aranya (Didi). While waiting with their father (Baba) for their grandmother (Thamma) at a train station in Howrah, Abhay accompanies Ashim to the latter’s old house, where he, Didi, and their mother lived before she died of cancer. What was meant to be a half-hour trip turns into a night of panic, as the boys get lost on the dark streets in making their way back to platform 14. After this apparently nightmarish episode, Baba and Ma’s punishment is final: Dada is to be sent away to boarding school in Namkum, and his sister Didi to Hazaribagh to be closer to her brother. This opening section of the novel is set in the present tense, which effectively captures the immediacy of the catalyst moments before the two brothers part ways in 1988.

Fast forward to the present day, where Ashim and his daughter Tulti come to visit Abhay for Christmas and New Year. Abhay is now a stay-at-home writer living in Wellington with his wife Lena and daughter Mira. The brothers look forward to their reunion, but the emotional gulf between remains. Mirroring that search for a piece of his past in the dim streets of Howrah, Ashim brings back memories that cause Abhay to question why he ever moved abroad in the first place.

Abhay and Lena alternately narrate the rest of the novel’s chapters in the past tense. Embedded with text messages and emails, these chapters reveal the distinct ways in which husband and wife view Ashim’s impact on their daily lives. As Lena features as the outsider looking in, I found myself sympathising with her most of all. Abhay, Ashim, and Lena limit their vision in accordance with their relation to the other person. While Abhay desires to renew his bond with his half-brother (and vice versa), Lena finds Ashim to be a bearer of past grudges, mistrust, and superstition. This observation, however, comes about through Abhay’s conversations with Lena.

I thoroughly enjoyed Chakraborti’s first-person narration and non-italicised incorporation of the Bengali language. Such techniques convey the interplay between foreignness and belonging, the core of the immigrant experience. Indian food and music not only add cultural depth but also set the scene for the brothers’ memory retrieval.

In focusing on familial pain, Chakraborti skilfully hinges his narrative on the central question: what does it mean to truly “see”? A startling question that, after reading The Man Who Would Not See, might find an answer.

Reviewed by Azariah Alfante

The Man Who Would Not See
by Rajorshi Chakraborti
Published by Penguin
ISBN 9780143771784

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: The Empty Coffin, by Gary Moore

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cv_the_empty_coffinIn Gary Moore’s debut thriller set in Auckland, crime is a burgeoning reality. Its imprints are challenged, yet coupled with obscurities, thus seemingly perpetuating the endemic pattern of wounding and wrongdoing.

Six-year-old Kerry Preston, an abducted girl, is found unscathed and unaffected by her tormentor. Constable Mary Clarke is shocked to find the child speaking to her like a grown-up and divulging Mary’s past life  all before resuming her juvenile self. Later, while crossing through a sports field one evening, fourteen-year-old Dean Bradley is murdered for his brand new sports shoes. Bradley’s murderer, Tom Heke, is on the run. He steals his friend’s mother’s money and joins the members of an ethnic gang, the Black Mamba. The big mystery lies in the disappearance of Bradley’s body from undertaker Ken Tamati’s funeral parlour.

Moore’s debut novel portrays just about every societal ill: murder, rape, theft, and gang violence, and dysfunctional families and communities. Each chapter in the novel opens with a radio network news broadcast, featuring reports and updates on crime and local politics all over New Zealand’s busiest city. The paths of the media, police and victims converge at the pursuit and question of “the Rainbow Man,” a mysterious saviour who punishes the violent attackers of several victims. A common detail in these victims’ contrasting accounts is the nebulous figure’s ability to heal the victims with a dazzling blue light, thus removing all pain and fear. While police try to gather information on this ostensibly supernatural being, the media circulates the public’s thought that it is the Second Coming.

The Empty Coffin is a superb debut thriller: action-packed, original and hauntingly intense. Due to its mature themes, this thriller would be suitable for older readers.

Reviewed by Azariah Alfante

The Empty Coffin
by Gary Moore
Published by Mary Egan Publishing
ISBN 9780473388959

Book Review: A Mighty Dawn, by Theodore Brun

cv_a_mighty_dawnAvailable now in bookshops nationwide.

Theodore Brun’s A Mighty Dawn is a story of violence and desire, set in early 8th century Scandinavia, a land of ash, snow, lakewater. Its protagonist, Hakan, is the “Chosen Son,” the son of Haldan, Lord of the Northern Jutes and the Vendlings of Vendlagard. One night, a vala (female seer and priestess) disrupts Hakan’s coming-of-age celebration with a haunting prophecy: ‘You will rise and fall again.’

The book is split into three parts, each section marking a stage in the character development of Hakan. After the girl he loves, Inga, commits suicide, Hakan learns from his father that Inga was also his sister. Embittered by his father’s dishonesty, Hakan leaves his home and family in Vendlagard. After he kills his rival, Konur, the son of Karsten, lord of the Middle Jute clans of the Karlung lands, Hakan fashions a new identity and accordingly renames himself, Erlan (‘Stranger’). With his horse, Idun, and his young companion, Kai, Erlan travels to King Sviggar to offer him his services. When King Sviggar’s daughter, Lilla, goes missing, Erlan sets forth again to find her, risking everything as he ventures into the uncertainties and terrors of a dark world and its creatures.

Theodore Brun’s writing flows smoothly, boasting rich descriptions and interior monologue. Coming from an academic background in archaeology, anthropology and history, it is evident that Brun has gone through a commendably great deal of research in order to interweave Scandinavian history and figures of Norse mythology such as Odin, Fenrir and the Norns. In his afterword, the author writes that the novel was influenced by stories like ‘Gylfaginning’, from the early thirteenth-century Prose Edda compiled by the Icelandic historian and poet Snorri Sturluson, as well as the poem ‘Völuspá’ from the Poetic Edda.

A Mighty Dawn is Brun’s debut novel, the first book of the promising Wanderer series. For the upcoming winter months, this novel would suit anyone with a penchant for historical fantasy and mythology. It would also make for an enjoyable and refreshing read for academics and students of history.

Reviewed by Azariah Alfante

A Mighty Dawn
by Theodore Brun
Published by Corvus
ISBN 978-1-7823999-5-7

Book Review: Under the Almond Tree, by Laura McVeigh

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

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