Book Review: The Hypnotist, by Laurence Anholt

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_hypnotist.jpgIt is not often that a book so terrifies me with its building tension that I need to put it down at night and return to read it in the light of day. The Hypnotist was such a book. In the south of the United States, against the background of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War, fourteen year old Pip is sold by his orphanage to a white farmer.

The bewildered Pip is taken to the ominously named Dead River to act as a carer to the farmer’s invalid wife. There Pip meets Irishman Jack, a hypnotist and neurology professor, who offers to home-school Pip and Hannah, a mute Native American girl who also works on the farm. Through their shared love of stories, notably Dicken’s Great Expectations, Pip and the farmer’s wife develop a relationship of mutual respect and tenderness. But outside of these growing friendships and the budding romance between Pip and Hannah, racial conflicts are intensifying. The presence of the farmer’s son, Erwin, an angry Vietnam veteran and white supremacist, looms large over the farm. The tension grows with the arrival of the Ku Klux Klan and its special breed of hatred. (It was at this point that I needed to stop reading before bedtime!)

The book’s narration switches between Pip, Jack, and Hannah, giving their unique perspectives on a troubled time in American history. The characters are very well-developed and bring their own individual insights and voice to the story. Farmer Zachery’s southern dialect is delightful to read:

… Way it works at Dead River – if Momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy. Most ‘f all you gotta read t’ her, y’ hear? Tha’s why ah picked you outta all the kids ah coulda chose.

This is a remarkable and extremely moving story of friendship, respect, and courage, made all the more timely by recent events in the United States and Europe. I would highly recommend this book for readers aged 12 and over, due to some of the themes.

Review by Tiffany Matsis

The Hypnotist
by Laurence Anholt
Published by Corgi Children’s
ISBN 9780552573450

Book Review: The Revelations of Carey Ravine, by Debra Daley

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_revelations_of_carey_ravineCarey Ravine appears to have it all. She’s living a happily decadent life in 1770s London with her husband, the charming Oliver Nash. Life is all about parties in stately homes, gorgeous dresses, and sleeping till noon.

Appearances, of course, can be deceiving. Carey’s past is not as innocent as she likes to pretend. She has secrets, not least a father who disappeared into the depths of the Indian jungle. In her efforts to keep her own skeletons firmly in the closet, she has been wilfully blind to her husband’s own secrets, too eager to take at face value all the lies that he has told her. And the Nashes are quickly running short of funds, with creditors lurking at the door.

Carey is a most frustrating young woman. She’s like that naively sweet friend who you suspect is being led on a merry dance by a rotten boyfriend but who is stubbornly incapable of hearing the truth. The reader begins to harbour suspicions about Nash’s true character long before Carey begins to question his shady past. Ultimately a visit from a mysterious stranger leads Carey to commence unraveling the web of lies, leading to a series of revelations about the men in her past and her present.

If you’re among the many lamenting the recent findings that New Zealanders don’t read much local fiction, then this is a great book for you to add to your To Read list. Although the novel is set in London’s high society and the jungles of India, Daley is herself a Kiwi writer, living in the Bay of Plenty.

The Revelations of Carey Ravine is a most entertaining and surprisingly dark glimpse into 18th century London’s secret societies, with a party scene to rival any soiree that Jay Gatsby ever hosted.

Review by Tiffany Matsis

The Revelations of Carey Ravine
by Debra Daley
Published by Quercus
ISBN 9781782069942

 

Book Review: The Fireman, by Joe Hill

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_firemanThe world is in the grip of a deadly pandemic. A highly contagious bacteria is spreading across the planet, infecting millions of people in its wake. Draco Incendia Trychophyton, or “Dragonscale” as people have taken to calling it, marks out its victims with beautiful decorative black and gold markings across their skin – and a propensity to burst into flame. And America is burning. Cities have been destroyed, millions have died. The sick are being hunted and executed by the healthy, led by The Marlboro Man and his Cremation Crew.

Harper is a nurse. Or at least, she was a nurse until her hospital burned down, killing hundreds of infected patients. Now she is herself infected with the disease – and pregnant. On the run for her life, and that of her unborn baby, Harper seeks refuge at a secret commune with fellow Dragonscale sufferers. They think they have found a way to live in harmony with their deadly disease – provided they are able to remain hidden from the quarantine squads. Among the group is the Fireman, an enigmatic madman who has taught himself how to wield his internal fire as a weapon.

I confess I am not a fan of horror or science fiction. This book was well out of my usual comfort zone. However, I was intrigued by the premise – and made all the more curious when I discovered that the author Joe Hill is actually Joe Hillstrom King, son of the legendary Stephen King. I suspected, rightly, that I was in for a good read. Joe has inherited his father’s gift for storytelling.

This is a tense and action-packed book. “How are we supposed to live our lives when every day is September eleventh?” Even when I wasn’t reading it, I felt an ominous sense of dread and anxiety. This is a book that follows you. Even in its bleak moments though, there is levity. I really enjoyed the many pop culture references and subtle jokes: the mentions of voting for Donald Trump, the frequent references to Mary Poppins and Harry Potter, the mentions in passing about the fate of various celebrities infected with Dragonscale (RIP George Clooney). This is a book that spans many genres without fitting neatly into any. It is part science fiction, part horror, part dystopian drama, part romance. In short, something for everyone.

It was no surprise to read in the author’s acknowledgements at the conclusion of the book that he has sold the film rights to the book. This is a story crying out to be on the big screen. The beautiful horror of the Dragonscale etching its victims in a pulsing gold pattern of swirls and curls will be incredible on a movie screen. Read the book before you see the movie.

Reviewed by Tiffany Matsis

The Fireman
by Joe Hill
Published by Gollancz
ISBN 9780575130722

Book Review: The Other Mrs Walker, by Mary Paulson-Ellis

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Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_other_mrs_walkerOn a cold, dark, Christmas night, in the depths of a Scottish winter, an old lady dies alone, surrounded by her meagre treasures in a rundown small flat. Two weeks later, a woman in the midst of her own life crisis arrives to try and find a name and a family for the lost old lady – and in doing so, finds her own.

Margaret Penny is forty seven, broke, unemployed, and friendless. Reeling from a relationship break-up, she abandons her depressing life in London to return home to her mother’s flat in dark, cold, Edinburgh. With no plans and no prospects, Margaret accepts the offer of a lowly temp job at the Office for Lost People where she is set the task of finding the next-of-kin of a recently deceased elderly woman. The investigation into lonely old Mrs Walker’s sad life leads Margaret to revelations about her own.

This is not a happy tale. Life in Edinburgh is damp, dark, and freezing. This is not Alexander McCall Smith’s quirky handsome Edinburgh. The city is “grey skies, grey buildings, grey pavements all encased in ice. And the people too.” The people of Edinburgh are cold, hardened, and constantly in each other’s business. Margaret is forced to move in with her reclusive mother and, after thirty years of having lived apart, their relationship is strained, to say the least.

“Home. It wasn’t where Margaret’s heart was. But at least it was somewhere to run.” There are long-held grudges and secrets on both sides. Neither woman is in a particularly happy place in her life. “It would be typical to come home for her mid-life crisis, only to discover that her mother’s end-of-life crisis was well under way.”

The story alternates between Margaret’s present-day investigations into the old Mrs Walker, and flashbacks into both Margaret and Mrs Walker’s pasts. The glimpses of life in London during the Blitz are fascinating. From mental asylums to backstreet abortionists, the book takes the reader into rather gritty and depressing places, inhabited by some rather tragic, miserable, and thoroughly unlikeable characters.

This is a bleak but riveting read about families and secrets. It is not at all an uplifting tale but it is one that will have you reflecting on its characters for some time afterwards. An ambitious and layered story from a new Scottish author.

Reviewed by Tiffany Matsis

The Other Mrs Walker
by Mary Paulson-Ellis
Published by Mantle
ISBN 9781447293910

Book Review: The Girl Who Came Back, by Susan Lewis

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_girl_who_came_backJules Bright’s happy family life was cruelly shattered by the actions of one young woman. Jules lost everything she held most dear. And now the perpetrator is being released from prison after serving a mere three years for her heinous crimes – and she’s coming back to live in her old neighbourhood.

This, in a nutshell, is the whole plot of The Girl Who Came Back. The reader learns, through flashbacks, just how happy Jules and her family were until Amelia Quentin came into their lives. And we discover, piece by painful piece, what Amelia did to utterly destroy that happiness.

Things are pretty black and white in the world Susan Lewis creates. Jules and her husband are, with one exceptional misstep, a perfectly happy married couple, blissfully living out their idyllic lives running a renovated 600-year-old pub on the coast of south-west England. Daisy, their only child is a perfectly delightful angel, with ‘her bouncy blonde curls and captivating violet-blue eyes’, doted on by all in the village. ‘Fortune has bestowed a dazzling smile on Jules and Kian…’. With a set-up like that, the reader knows that calamity cannot be too far away.

And calamity’s name is Amelia Quentin. This Amelia is much much naughtier than Enid Blyton’s Amelia Jane. Amelia is purely evil without any redeeming qualities whatsoever. From the moment we first meet her as a spoiled, petulant, unattractive child, Amelia is the dark cloud hanging over Jules’ happiness. And now she’s back. How will Jules cope, knowing that the woman who destroyed her family is back in town and seemingly having a grand ol’ time on her release from prison?

I understand that at least one of the minor characters in The Girl Who Came Back has featured in another of Susan Lewis’ books, Behind Closed Doors. I am sure her faithful readers will find this a satisfying read. However, I am not counting myself among them. I cannot rate this book as being more than an average read. Although the whodunit aspect is apparent from the blurb on the back cover, I found that the “what she did” took an agonisingly long time to unravel through frustrating flashbacks between past and present. And the “why she did it” is never fully explored beyond Amelia simply being a bad egg. The characters were too wholly good or wholly bad to be more than two dimensional, despite the laborious detail Lewis goes into in describing everything about them.

Susan Lewis is a best-selling and very prolific author. Fans of her work will no doubt be eager to add this latest novel to their To Read lists.

Reviewed by Tiffany Matsis

The Girl Who Came Back
by Susan Lewis
Published by Century
ISBN 9781780891835

Book Review: Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee

cv_go_set_a_watchmanAvailable in bookstores nationwide.

You’d have to have been living under a metaphorical rock not to have heard about the July 2015 publication of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. It was one of the most anticipated literary releases of recent years, coming 54 years after the publication of the author’s only other published work: the modern day classic and Pulitzer Prize-winning To Kill a Mockingbird.

As a fan and frequent re-reader of Mockingbird, I confess I awaited Watchman with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. There was a lot of controversy and speculation before the book was even published. Had the famously reclusive Miss Lee, now 89 years old, living in an assisted-living centre in Monroeville, Alabama, and virtually blind and profoundly deaf, properly consented to the publication? And why now, after so many decades of refusing to publish again? Was she being taken advantage of by those trusted to guard her affairs? Is Watchman’s publication one of the most “epic money grabs in the modern history of American publishing”, as the New York Times so bluntly called it? Much has been written on the subject and I would suggest you hunt out some interesting articles in Vanity Fair and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among other publications, if the background intrigues you.

But, controversy and hype aside, how is the book? Actually, it’s not bad. That might sound like rather a back-handed compliment but it’s fitting. Mere days after the book’s 14 July publication, there were countless reviews labeling Watchman everything from “a failure as a novel” (The New Yorker) to “a good first draft” (The Independent). It all made this Mockingbird fan very nervous indeed. So it came as a pleasant surprise that I liked Watchman more than I had expected.

Watchman is, in a way, a sequel to Mockingbird, dealing as it does with the now all-grown-up Jean Louise Finch, formerly known as Scout, at the age of twenty-six, returning to her childhood home. However, it is also, in a way, a prequel, written as it was seven years prior to Mockingbird. (Editors dismissed Watchman and asked Lee to go back and try again, focusing more on the Scout character in her innocent childhood.)

Watchman sees Jean Louise returning to Maycomb to visit her father, our beloved Atticus Finch, after several years living in New York. The title of the new book comes from a Bible verse (Isaiah 21:6) in which the prophet is urged to set up a watchman to report back on what he sees – and what she sees is not entirely pleasant. The town of Maycomb is just as segregated and cruelly racist as when we last encountered it. But the surprise, and this requires no “spoiler alert” because it’s been much discussed in the media, is that our heroic Atticus (and how many of you are not picturing Gregory Peck at this very moment?) is an unapologetic old racist who condones the views of segregationists.

Hearts all over the reading world were broken by the revelation that Atticus, for so long placed on a pedestal and declared by the court of public opinion to be a beacon of justice and racial equality, is flawed and shockingly human. As a reader, you can’t help but empathise with Jean Louise’s heartache.

“The one human being she had ever fully and wholeheartedly trusted had failed her; the only man she had ever known to whom she could point and say with expert knowledge, “He is a gentleman, in his heart, he is a gentleman,” had betrayed her, publicly, grossly, and shamelessly.”

The book has many flashbacks to Jean Louise’s childhood, with events that will be at least familiar to Mockingbird readers. These passages are much more enjoyable to read and it’s easy to understand why Lee’s editor encouraged her to refocus her book on this earlier period. Watchman is good. It’s not great. What it is, however, is interesting. It is a fascinating living example of the role of a brilliant editor and how a fairly good draft can be reshaped into something spectacular.

But ultimately perhaps the old adage is right, for readers and for grown-up Scout – and you can’t go home again.

Review by Tiffany Matsis 

Go Set a Watchman
by Harper Lee
Published by William Heinemann Ltd.
ISBN 9781785150289

Book Review: Mōtītī Blue and the oil spill, by Debbie McCauley

Available in bookstores nationwide.cv_motiti_blue_and_the_oil_spill

Mōtītī Blue and the Oil Spill is a beautifully told story which follows the experience of a little blue penguin, called Mōtītī Blue, as he tries to survive the oil spill from the Rena ship grounding in 2011.

The pages are packed with great photos, interesting facts and a wonderful story, written in both English and Māori. There is newfound knowledge on every page, from descriptive fact files to illustrated maps, all providing lots of detail about penguins’ life cycles and habitats, the ship’s grounding, and the rehabilitation of affected wildlife.

The story, in both English and Maori, is well-written and would appeal to children of all ages. This book is ideal for both recreational reading and classroom use. The book is packed with factual background material which would make this book a perfect teaching resource in schools. Although it is a very informative book on its own, it also includes a handy list of sources for further research.

Mōtītī Blue and the oil spill is a very clever book indeed and a worthy finalist in the non-fiction category of the New Zealand Book Awards for Children & Young Adults.

Review by Elisabeth Matsis (9), with a little bit of help from Tiffany Matsis

Mōtītī Blue and the Oil Spill
by Debbie McCauley
Published by Mauao Publishing
ISBN 9780473268695