Book Review: The Other Me, by Saskia Sarginson

Available now in bookstores nationwide.cv_the_other_me

Have you ever been totally absorbed in a book, loving the flawed characters, the taunt pacing, the slightly unsettling plot…and then the author pulls out a whoppingly obvious plot device, so contrived and unbelievable, that you fall out of the story and back to reality with an almost audible wallop?

That’s what happened to me while reading The Other Me, the third novel by English author Saskia Sarginson.

And it really had all been going so well. The novel starts in 1980’s England with Klaudia; a teenager kept cloistered by her religious parents, and in any case, ostracised by her peers anyway, thanks to her demanding and hostile father – who also happens to be the caretaker at her school and the subject of many vitriolic rumours due to his German heritage. Despite the passage of 40 years, he still makes an easy and cruel target, and thus, Klaudia does too.

When she finally makes her escape to university, Klaudia shakes off the suffocating shackles of her childhood, both physically and metaphorically, and blossoms into Eliza, a strong, confident young woman, far removed from her true identity. It’s a lovely retelling of the classic ugly duckling turned beautiful swan narrative. But of course it isn’t to last. Her past and present collide with catastrophic results, and our swan’s wings are not only clipped, but seemingly damaged beyond repair.

It’s here that the novel lost me with that jarring, far-fetched plot clanger. I know why the author did it; she needed a way to start moving the plot forward again after Klaudia/Eliza’s story crisis, but it felt lazy and cheap. I personally think readers deserve better.

When I had picked myself back up from the sudden tumble out of the story, and dusted myself down, I did cautiously delve back in. Because yes, I had come to care about Klaudia-turned-Eliza, but more so, I wanted to learn the fate of the characters in the second story that is interspersed through the novel; one that for me became the more compelling narrative.

Abandoned by their respective mothers, Otto and Ernst are two young German boys growing up unloved and desperate for attention from their foster family. The onset of World War II sees the young foundlings become soldiers who make very different choices that ripple down through the years to reach Klaudia. For me, these chapters of the book were the most enjoyable, while also being the most harrowing. Sarginson does not shy away from exploring the horrors of the Third Reich regime, but uses the two men to show both sides of German wartime sentiment, offsetting Otto’s Nazi fervour and abhorrence, with a story arc for Ernest that shows great humanity, compassion and tenderness.

But again, I felt the author pushed too hard at believability. Because just as Klaudia/Eliza’s past and present collides, so too does Otto and Ernest’s. However, the differences between them as boys, which was more subtly and skilfully handled within a strong storyline, becomes heavy handed and caricature in the present day at the novel’s end, dissolving into a blatant goodie vs baddie, poor man verses rich man battle, and results in a highly improbably “waltzing off into the sunset” resolution for Klaudia that rang hollow in my ears.

There’s no doubt Saskia Sarginson is a gifted writer: she proved that with her debut novel The Twins, and at times this novel hums along with tension and real drama and some of the characters, especially (as mentioned) the young boys in Germany, are both nuanced and fully fleshed out. But I finished the novel wishing the author (and her editors) had reigned herself in, instead of going down obvious and easy paths that stretch reader credibility.

Reviewed by Kelly Bold

The Other Me
by Saskia Sarginson
Published by Piatkus Books
ISBN 9780349403373

Book Review: Heavenly Hirani’s School of Laughing Yoga, by Sarah-Kate Lynch

Available in bookstores nationwide.

What happens to women who have devoted themselves to their husbands and children cv_heavenly_hiranis_school_of_laughing_yogawhen those they have built their lives around no longer need them? This is the difficult, emotional question at the heart of Sarah-Kate Lynch’s latest novel Heavenly Hirani’s School of Laughing Yoga.

The answer, at least for our protagonist Annie, comes in a vibrant and unexpected package.

Annie is about to hit rock bottom – and with good reason. She almost never hears from her son Ben and her overindulged daughter Daisy only gets in touch when she wants to make a withdrawal from the bank of mum. Annie’s own gentle and loving mother has just passed away after a short battle with dementia and her husband Hugh has become more like a flatmate than a husband – he’s there but does he actually “see” her anymore? Just as Annie teeters on the brink of despair and depression, the disappearance of her beloved canine companion Bertie tips her over the edge.

When Hugh presents Annie with tickets to accompany him on a work trip to India, she cannot think of anything worse than a holiday in smelly, dirty, crowded, humid Mumbai. She has no intention of venturing past the gates of the hotel and every intention of staying in her air conditioned room ordering from room service. But fate has other plans and through a friendly waiter named Valren she is introduced to Heavenly Hirani’s School of Laughing Yoga.

It’s unlike any Yoga class you have ever heard of: held on the sands of Chowpatty Beach as the sun comes up on the frenetically paced city, the forced laughter exercises soon induce genuine mirth and joy. Despite her myriad of initial misgivings, Annie is drawn back each day to the embrace of this circle of men and women and their kind-hearted leader Heavenly Hirani. It also sparks off a chain reaction within Annie, and as she begins to explore the treasures of Mumbai aided by her devoted, unintentionally comical (and very wise) personal taxi driver Pinto, she learns all manner of things about herself.

This is Sarah-Kate Lynch at her funny, clever and insightful best. At times I wanted to shake her character of Annie as she curled up inside her timid shell, but by the end I wanted to hug her tight for the brave and honest transformation and self-discovery she had gone through, staring down empty nest syndrome and firmly kicking its butt. It’s a story younger women will connect with, perhaps having seen Annie’s dilemmas reflected in their own mums, while older readers will nod their heads sagely and with a wry smile think “yep, been there, done that, lived to tell the tale.”

And no matter what age you are, you’ll be captivated by the crazy, colourful, chaotic city of Mumbai brought vividly to life on the page by Sarah-Kate’s gorgeous descriptions. Like Annie (and the author), I have never had any desire to visit India but all that changed reading this novel – maybe Sarah-Kate needs to start charging the Indian ministry of tourism commission!

Heavenly Hirani’s School of Laughing Yoga is tender, big hearted story about a woman rediscovering herself and her place in the world, infused with all the wit and warmth we have come to know and love Sarah-Kate Lynch for.

Reviewed by Kelly Bold

Heavenly Hirani’s School of Laughing Yoga
by Sarah-Kate Lynch
Published by Black Swan NZ
ISBN 9781775537052

Book Review: The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, by Claire North

cv_the_first_fifteen_lives_of_harry_augustThe first thing that struck me about this book is its fantastic, attention grabbing title: I bet Kate Atkinson’s publishers are kicking themselves they didn’t think of it first for Ursula Todd’s many lives and deaths in Life After Life.

The second thing that caught my eye was the author’s name, which we are told from the book’s blurb is a pseudonym. Nothing piques my curiosity like reading a great novel (and this one is great – I’ll get to that in a moment) but not actually knowing who the person behind it is. Fortunately for me, a quick Google and the answer was revealed: Claire North is prodigiously talented fantasy novelist Catherine Webb who, at just 28 years of age, already has a slew of books to her name – the first written at just age 14. She’s also no stranger to writing under an assumed name, having done so as Kate Griffin for her adult book series.

So we’ve got a jump-out-and-grab-you title and a talented and a prolific and talented author: The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August can’t go wrong, right?


Harry August is a kalachakra: when he dies, he is always reborn to the exact same time and place – England in 1918, as the illegitimate son (the product of rape) of a British nobleman who is raised by the aristocrat’s gardener. While kalachakra retain the knowledge and understanding acquired in previous lives, Harry is also a mnemonic – meaning he retains with perfect recall everything he learns, sees and hears.


The Rose Garden at Great Fosters, designed in 1918

These are rare and sometimes troubling, even dangerous, gifts. No more so when, at the end of his eleventh life as he lies dying in hospital, a message from the future, relayed through time by other kalachakra, is delivered to him. Someone is altering the events of history, the world is ending and Harry needs to stop it.

It’s a total cliché to say I was hooked from the first page, but I really was. How could you not be with a premise like that? And it’s a set up the novel delivers on fully. It starts with a fantastic protagonist in Harry – he’s real but conflicted, eminently likable but also fallible. His story of essentially saving the world unfolds in a non linear fashion through the novel, jumping through time and his other lives but somehow never once becoming confusing, overblown or messy. The unique plot device of Harry’s many lives and his faultless memory adds a unique depth to his character. He’s supported by a cast of well formed, intriguing characters and a villain I didn’t see coming.

As for the story itself, there’s murder (quite a bit actually!), historical drama, war, love, espionage, criminal underworlds, mind games, gambling and wealth, staggering technological advancements, ravishing greed, betrayal, and a secret, shadowy organisation of kalachakra called the Chronus Club. All of this is tautly delivered in a pacy, often wryly humorous and meticulously researched novel that is thought provoking too.

I think everyone who reads this book will at some point ponder what they would do, for good or for evil, if reborn over and over with all memories intact. Maybe Claire North’s time travelling, suspenseful and compelling novel might change your mind on that.

Reviewed by Kelly Bold

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August
by Claire North
Published by Little, Brown
ISBN 9780356502564

Book review: The Twins by Saskia Sarginson

cv_twinsThis book is in bookstores now.

The debut novel from British author Saskia Sarginson simply called The Twins, is anything but simple: it’s a beautifully layered novel about childhood, the haunting nature of secrets and the unbreakable bond of twins.

Isolte and Viola are leading vastly different lives. One lies emaciated in a hospital bed, ravaged by an eating disorder: the other is a fashion writer with all the trappings of hedonistic 80’s success – arty boyfriend, nice apartment, the right clothes. It’s hard to believe these twin girls were once unspeakably close, living in a kind of hippy Arcadia with their unconventional but loving mum in the Suffolk countryside. But a series of events, beginning with the chance meeting and befriending of a pair of local red headed twin boys, leads to a chain reaction of tragedies that tears at the seams of the girl’s twinness. Over the course of the novel, Isolte and Viola delve back into the terrible events of that heartbreaking summer, to a restless past that threatens their future.

There are many clever things about this novel. The first one that struck me was how carefully crafted the story is, but not in a heavy or obvious way. Sarginson is able to conjure up fresh, deceptively simple but quite stunning ways of describing the everyday and she does it time and time again. Let me give you an example:

“Water dribbles through the ceiling in their bedroom. It seeps around the light fixing, spreading like a shadow, and drips into a bowl that Isolte put under it. It smells like moss and wet wood. It’s been raining for days. Sudden squalls splatter loudly against the windows. The land outside the garden runs like a river, pebbles carried off in the flood and the sand darkened and sopping. There are puddles everywhere. Nobody comes.”

Another clever trick to the novel is the shifting narrative: the voice changes between Isolte and Viola and back again, and it did take a little getting used to. I admit occasionally I got caught out and had to back track and re-read as I was coming from the wrong twin’s perspective. But this shifting of narrator also gives a strong sense of the sameness and difference between the twins, both as children and especially as adults.

The story also shifts through time and place: from the grown up twins in mid 80s London, back to their 70s Suffolk childhood. This technique allows the two time threads to be gently teased out and the novel is a slow building, criss-crossing reveal to the tragic events that irrevocably change the course of their lives.

The chance for redemption for the girls, when it finally comes, leaves this sometimes dark and tense novel with an uncertain but hopeful ending – one that a little part of me wishes could have had a few pages more and a slightly more certain path for Isolte and Viola.

The Twins is a compelling slow burn of a story with evocative writing. It’s an accomplished first novel by Saskia Sarginson and it was with genuine pleasure I read she’s already at work on her next novel – which I will definitely be adding to my wish list.

Reviewed by Kelly Bold, The Well Read Kitty

Publishers_Promise-58100 (1)This is a Publisher’s Promise title: Simply buy a book with the Publisher’s Promise sticker and tell Hachette what you thought of it in 50–100 words. If you love it, they’ll send you a free book; if you didn’t like it they’ll refund your money. Read more about the promotion and how to take part.

The Twins
by Saskia Sarginson
Published by Piatkus Books
ISBN 9780749958671