Book Review: The City of Secret Rivers, by Jacob Sager Weinstein

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_city_of_secret_riversWho knew there was a maze of secret magic rivers flowing underneath London’s streets? Certainly not Hyacinth Hayward, the young heroine of this contemporary fantasy adventure. When she ‘fixes’ the plumbing and inadvertently releases a single drop of magic water she finds herself caught in the middle of a centuries old struggle for power.
A knock at the door reveals the strange Saltpetre Men who work for the Royal Mail. Slow moving and sibilant, they are the first of many strange characters she encounters in her race to recover the magic droplet and save her mother.

Aided by her neighbour, the elderly and feisty Lady Roslyn, the pair escape down into the sewers and into an underground escapade full of twists, peril, surprises, double crosses and riddles. Hyacinth has to trust her instincts in order to work through the situations she finds herself in. As her adventure progresses she uncovers a family connection to the magic which adds to her determination.

The story is full of clever plot points, many of which relate to real London monuments and events in the city’s long history. The characters are funny and unique; from the charming huge pig who communicates via printed cards, to the Saltpetre Mailmen and some who are seen here in a totally different guise than normal – I’m talking to you, unicorn!

Readers who enjoy magic and adventure will surely enjoy The City of Rivers and will be drawn into this engaging and well-paced story. The ending, while closing off this adventure, leaves you with a hint of further mysteries and questions to be answered in a follow-up sequel, which I am hoping is in the pipeline (pun completely intended!).
Now that we have been introduced to the magical world existing below the city streets, a visit to London will never be the same again…

Reviewed by Vanessa Hatley-Owen

The City of Secret Rivers
by Jacob Sager Weinstein
Published by Walker Books
ISBN 9781406368857

Book Review: The Muse, by Jessie Burton

Available at bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_museThere’s something magical about Jesse Burton’s The Muse. It’s visually immersive in a way I haven’t experienced in a long while. The language feels painterly – a style that reverberates with the content and themes of the novel, and there’s an effortlessness in the prose that feels like ‘viewing’ rather than ‘reading’.

The Muse presents two narratives, starting in 1967 with Odelle Bastien, an immigrant from Trinidad and a writer who’s more familiar with London’s feet than its journals. Unsatisfied with her job in a shoe shop, she’s offered a position at the Skelton Gallery as a typist, and is swept under the wing of Marjorie Quick. She soon becomes enraptured by the origins of a newly-surfaced painting, its owner, and what Quick may be hiding about her knowledge of it.

The painting’s origins are unearthed in the 1936 story of Olive Schloss, the daughter of an art dealer and a secret painter herself, whose sexual awakening and coming-of-age manifests in an obsession with a local artist. The two narratives enhance the telling of each other in ways that almost necessitate a second reading – there are some truly beautiful insights on life, loneliness, otherness and creativity; yes, some brutal realities are swept over, but so the brush keeps moving.

The John Berger epigraph: “Never again will a single story be told as though it were the only one” is so fitting, not only in keeping with the novel itself, but also in encompassing its creation. Jesse Burton’s first book The Miniaturist was translated into over thirty languages and has sold over a million copies. On her blog, Burton has been quite open about her struggles with depression and anxiety following the success of her first novel (link to her amazing post below). Themes of artistry, creativity and success in The Muse are marked by the author’s fingerprints of experience. I’ve mused on a fair few passages myself – the reading was at times truly cathartic.

Although a little heavy-handed at times, The Muse is one of my favourite books this year. It’s multi-faceted and poignant, and it resonated personally. I thinkBurton makes good on the sentiment she expressed in February, where she so openly discussed the process drafting this book:

“I have tried to write a novel full of life. I have written a book whose themes interest me, a book I would like you to read on a gloomy English night, a book to transport you as much as it chimes close to home.”

Reviewed by Emma Bryson

The Muse
by Jessie Burton
Published by Picador
ISBN 9781447250944

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

BOOK REVIEW: Something to Hide, by Deborah Moggach


Available now in bookstores nationwide.

Deborah Moggach is the author of the much-loved book The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which has since been made into a film.

In White Springs, Texas, Lorrie is locked into a marriage with Todd. Lorrie loves him very much; they have grown up dirt-poor, were childhood sweethearts and bound together. Todd is in the army and has served two terms in Iraq. Lorrie and Todd and their two teenage kids love to eat and so over the years they have all put on the pounds. Lorrie is very lonely with Todd away so much – she goes on-line, finds herself a job. “Earn hundreds of dollars a month in the comfort of your own home! Become a sales rep with our fast-growing company. Earn commission rates of twenty percent of retail sales prices, rising with the volume of items sold”. The whole thing sounds far too good to be true! All of Lorrie and Todd’s life savings are drained from their savings account.

In Beijng, China Li Jing is married to Wang Lei. They desperately want children, but this was not to be. Wang Lei is a businessman, but as to what he actually does, Li Jing has no idea. She came from a poor background and since their marriage her parents had been looked after by Wang Lei, providing them with a house and everything they could possibly need.

In Pimlico, London, Petra is mulling over her disastrous love life – her failed marriage to Alan and her disconnection from her two adult children.

The way in which these characters are connected becomes clear as you read. Petra has an affair with Jeremy, the husband of her best friend Bev from school days. Jeremy and Petra fall in love, continuing their relationship via email after he flies back to West Africa, ultimately deciding to make thier arrangement permanent, with Jeremy to leave Bev. How to tell Bev and how the transition will take place is something they yet have to decide.

Meanwhile, back in Texas, Lorrie decides to replenish her and Todd’s savings account, without him being aware, by becoming a surrogate for a couple who are unable to have children of their own. That couple live in Beijing. With Todd being deployed for months on end and Lorrie being overweight, deceiving those around her is not that hard.

The story weaves in and out of the three women’s lives. This intriguing story of lies and deception is rather gripping. I became wrapped up in the character’s lives, reading well into the night. The tangled web of lies, interwoven with truth make for a fascinating read.

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

Something to Hide
by Deborah Moggach
Published by Chatto & Windus
ISBN 9781784740474

Book Review: The Chimes, by Anna Smaill

cv_the_chimesAvailable now in bookstores nationwide.

This book is a beautiful journey that draws you into a world of song and music: post-dischord London.

We begin the book as our narrator, Simon, leaves his home to travel to London. The narrative drives us ever forwards, as initially, explanation of backstory is beside the point when during Chimes each day, our narrator loses his memory of the day that has just been. All he knows, and this because he is special, is that he has lost something, and come from somewhere that has disappeared into the fog of what came before.

The book uses the language of music to tell this tale. The elite of the society our narrator lives in are virtuoso musicians, the guilds that exist in England are all related to the creation of instruments or the supply of basic services to those who do, and the joy of living is found in the creation of beautiful music. Silence is anathema, and mistrusted. But there are no memories beyond the ‘memory objects’ people carry with them, and bodymemory – memory created through repetition of tasks. This means there are no books – language is not written.

Simon finds his place in London amongst a group of five pactrunners, who run through the underground sewer system to find pieces of Pale. Pale, or The Lady, is Palladium – pure silver used to create the instrument that caused the dischord, distinguishable by the silence surrounding it. He and his fellows are led by Lucien, a blind boy who has a strange power over the group. Lucien uses chords, tones, cadences and phrases to teach the runners where to find Pale, which is traded for tokens to buy food at the markets. But what is the Pale used to do? And what are The Chimes, exactly?

I have seen early reviews that say this book takes awhile to get going, but I disagree. Without this knowledge of how the society works and the place of the key characters within it, you would be running without a tune to follow.

Anna Smaill is a poet, and it is with a poet’s touch that she has crafted each sentence. Her use of musical language does require some knowledge of musical terminology, but that should not dissuade anybody from reading this wonderful dedication to the light and the dark side of cultural mores. The Chimes is also, unexpectedly, a love story, and it is this string of the story that takes precedence at the book’s end. This is a beautiful story, and I want more time in this world.

By Sarah Forster

The Chimes
by Anna Smaill
Published by Sceptre
ISBN 9781444794533

I conducted an email Q&A with Anna Smaill, which will be up in a couple of hours, and feature in The Read, our booksellers’ newsletter.