Book Review: A Sister in my House, by Linda Olsson

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_a_sister_in_my_house.jpgMaria has found sanctuary in a rented house, overlooking a small Spanish village by the sea. She is coming to terms with losing the love of her life. But her solitude and places that have become special to her are about to be encroached on by the arrival of her younger sister, Emma.

It is two years since Maria issued the invitation to her younger sister following their mother’s funeral and she is unsure if it was such a good idea. ‘Now, as I tried to think back and understand why I had blurted out the invitation, I reluctantly had to acknowledge that I might have been driven by a wish to show off. To flaunt my new life. Strut my happiness.’

The inclusion of a verse by Emily Dickinson at the beginning of the book was the inspiration the title of the novel and gives us a clue about what might be revealed in the book.

One Sister have I in our house-
And one, a hedge away.
There’s only one recorded,
But both belong to me.

It is not a long book (just 119 pages) but the author gently explores the sisters’ thoughts and feelings about their childhood and the adults they have become.

‘Why? Your father adored you. You were his little princess.’
Emma’s response took a long while.
‘I don’t really know what my father felt for me. I have no memories of us doing anything much together.’

The novel is divided into six chapters, one for each day of Emma’s stay, during which the author Linda Olsson explores the relationships over forty years, between the sisters, mother and their fathers.

Linda Olsson  has written a number of novels, her first, Let me Sing you Gentle Songs, was published in 2005 and became an international success. I had read the more recent The Blackbird Sings at Dusk (2016) and enjoyed it.

Olsson did not disappoint, her elegant style and attention to detail was again evident in this work, as the small steps in the sisters’ lives helped them to move into the future. The stunning cover invites the reader in. Anyone who enjoys a book about family relationships will find this a rewarding read.

Reviewed By Lesley McIntosh

A Sister in My House
by Linda Olsson
Published by Penguin Books
ISBN 9780143770763

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

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

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: This Mortal Coil, by Emily Suvada

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_this_mortal_coil.jpgWell, this book has everything that you could ask for in a dystopian novel, and more. There is some romance, there are a whole lot of horrible dystopian goings-on, including a particularly unpleasant virus which makes people explode (might need to check the science on that), and a marvellous array of geek-speak which is wonderful.

Our fearless heroine Catarina – known as Cat – is the daughter of a famous geneticist who, it was hoped, had the fix for the virus which is devastating what’s left of the known world.

When Cat hears of her father’s death from a soldier who has been gene-hacked – this is quite common in this story – she also discovers that there’s a code which she, and quite likely only she, can possibly crack, to save the world.

Yes, I know, you have heard this all before.

But what makes it different is the complexity and interweaving of all the various strands in this novel. Emily Suvada has degrees in math and astrophysics, and her expertise is well-utilised. While I did have to suspend disbelief several times, I still wanted to keep reading and see how it all turns out.

There are a zillion twists and turns, and those whom you think are evil may not be. And vica versa.

I would recommend it to any dystopia-lover, but if you have never read a YA dystopian fiction novel, this might not be the one to begin with.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

This Mortal Coil 
by Emily Suvada
Published by Penguin Books
ISBN 9780141379272

Book Review: The One Memory of Flora Banks, by Emily Barr

cv_the_one_memory_of_flora_banksAvailable now in bookshops nationwide.
Flora Banks is no ordinary teenager. She is 17 years old, but has no memories since the age of ten, when a tumour took part of her brain. To compensate for her lack of memory, Flora relies on keeping notes: scrawled messages along her arm, post-its, and a notebook carried with her always, and photographs on her cell phone. No memories last longer than a few hours, until the night she kisses a boy on the beach and discovers, much to her amazement, that she can remember it. Unfortunately, it is also the kiss that ruins her friendship with best-friend-since-childhood, Paige. The boy leaves, to study in the Arctic north, and her parents are called away – Flora’s barely-remembered brother is ill, very ill, and he needs them more than she does. For the first time in her life (as far as she knows), Flora is left alone, alone with the memory of the boy who kissed her. The boy she remembered…

Written from Flora’s perspective, this makes for an uncertain narrative: how much of Flora’s life is she sharing with us, and how many secrets are hidden in the blank spaces between the paragraphs? What is truth and what is fantasy? The longer her parents are away, the stronger and more independent Flora becomes, until they don’t come back and she decides, instead, to chase the fantasy and seek greater understanding of herself.

The One Memory is a roller-coaster ride of emotion and uncertainty, tempered with frustration. Flora is likeable in her innocence, her seeming-fragility that masks are harder, sharper core. Watching her grow to become more than just the memory-hampered teenager, is both rewarding and a little frightening. It should be enjoyed by fans of John Green and Jennifer Niven, and anyone who likes a good teenage drama with (relatively) good morals.

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

The One Memory of Flora Banks
by Emily Barr
Published by Penguin Books
ISBN 9780141368511

 

Book Review: Holding Up the Universe, by Jennifer Niven

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_holding_up_the_universeFollowing up the masterful All the Bright Places is no mean feat, but Jennifer Niven succeeds nicely with this second YA drama about teenagers that just don’t quite fit in and are trying to find their footing in the world. It is a lighter affair than Bright Places, although the characters are no less threatened by their circumstances.

Libby Strout, once house-bound, dubbed “America’s Fattest Teen”, is now determined to enjoy her future of freedom. Unfortunately, that also means facing High School, the stares, and the whispers. Everyone seems to think they know her – but few seem willing to look beyond her weight and see who she really is: the girl shattered by grief, still picking up the pieces of her life since her mother died; the girl who loves to dance, whose spirit was free even when her body was trapped.

Jack Masselin has swagger, a beautiful girlfriend, a bevy of friends and is considered “popular” amongst his peers. But he has a deeper secret hidden beneath the mask he wears: ever since he fell from the roof at the age of six, Jack has not been able to recognise people by their faces. Even his brothers become strangers.

A cruel game, bordering on bullying, brings them together, and sharing their secrets draws them closer still. Libby, with her outspoken, protective nature and don’t-mess-with-me personality really shines as a character, a powerful role model to any teenager out there who is feeling insecure or uncertain. Even as an adult, her story had resonance with my own memories of High School.

Holding Up the Universe is an engaging tale, with strong characters and a plot both inspiring and true. I learned a lot about Prosopagnosia too! Recommended to fans of John Green, Rainbow Rowell and Sarah Dessen. High School drama at its most satisfying.

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

Holding Up the Universe
by Jennifer Niven
Published by Penguin Books
ISBN 9780141357058

Book Review: Strictly Between Us, by Jane Fallon

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_strictly_between_useStrictly Between Us
is a tale of loyalty, betrayal, love, lust, good intentions and double-dealing. Tamsin is the star of the show, and the supporting cast are her long-time best friend, the best friend’s husband, and Tamsin’s personal assistant.

Fallon doesn’t waste any time setting up the action. Halfway down the first page we see … well, I can’t say what without spoiling a major plot point. It’s a fairly full-on way to start a book, and shows two of the main characters in a less than flattering light. Which is probably the point.

The pace remains fast throughout the 400+ pages, and zips back in time a little way to explain the first page scene, and the repercussions that reverberate throughout the rest of the story. The story is primarily told from Tamsin’s point of view in first person, which took me a little while to get used to. As the story progresses we also hear from Tamsin’s personal assistant Bea from time to time, also in first person, which presents another interpretation of events.

Fallon has been described by The Guardian as writing “Chick Lit with an edge”, which is about as apt a description as any. The writing style of Strictly Between Us and the worlds that the characters inhabit suggest a readership that is well informed, well-travelled, and connected to all that is currently fashionable. It is very ‘here and now’, with descriptions of hipsters, retro pub interior design and coffee preferences peppering the story. For me, Fallon’s edge is her pacing; the story moves along at a cracking pace, and I found myself spending more time reading than I intended to, to see what Tamsin was going to do next.

I don’t know if it’s because the blurb on the back cover gives away a huge clue or I’ve got better at reading between the lines after a summer spent in the company of authors Robert Galbraith and Gillian Flynn (both of whom keep the reader guessing for much longer), but I saw the major plot twist coming a mile off. This shouldn’t put potential readers off, as there’s a lot of the story dealing with the resolution of the crisis. The characters are reasonably complex; with the exception of Michelle who felt more like a sketch, the main protagonists are three dimensional and flawed. And while the story wraps up in a conventional sort of way, there is a last little plot twist that adds a bit of relish, and a touch of real life, to the story.

Reviewed by Rachel Moore

Strictly Between Us
by Jane Fallon
Published by Penguin Books
ISBN 9781405917711

Book Reviews: Five Minutes Alone, by Paul Cleave

cv_five_minutes_aloneAvailable in bookstores nationwide.

Award-winning Christchurch crime writer Paul Cleave is back with his eighth book, and I’m relieved to say it’s every bit as good as his previous works.

Former ‘Coma Cops’ Theodore Tate & Carl Schroeder are back amongst the land of the living. Or at the least the land of the functioning members of society. Supposedly. But after that many years on the police force, seeing what they’ve seen, doing what they’ve done and time in Coma Land? Well it’s not surprising that things feel a little off, like they don’t fit anymore.

When a vicious rapist is found dead under suspicious circumstances, and another two are found shortly afterwards, it appears that a vigilante may be helping victims of horrific crimes exact revenge by giving them five minutes alone with those responsible for causing them misery. Obviously that makes the vigilante a criminal too, someone who should be taken off the street – or does it?

Showcasing his trademark plotting prowess and knack for exceptional characterisation, Cleave has once again crafted a book you just don’t want to put down until you’re finished.

While it’s a little unnerving to read about a Christchurch without an earthquake, you can quickly bypass that and lose yourself in the story, one that flows on easily from Cleave’s previous books; but I think would still be enjoyable and understandable to someone picking up one of his novels for the first time. (Though I recommend of course you start at the beginning – treat yourself!)

Reviewed by Sarah McMullan
nzsarahmcmullan@gmail.com

Five Minutes Alone
by Paul Cleave
Published by Penguin Books NZ
ISBN 9780143572312