Book Review: Everyone Brave is Forgiven

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Everyone Brave is Forgiven – Chris Cleave
Published by Hachette NZ

When war is declared, Mary north leaves finishing school unfinished, goes straight to the War Office, and signs up.

Tom Shaw decides to give it a miss – until his flatmate Alistair unexpectedly enlists, and the conflict can no longer be avoided.

Young, bright and brave, Mary is certain she’ll be a marvellous spy. When she is – bewilderingly – made a teacher, she instead finds herself defying prejudice to protect the children her country would rather forget.

Let me preface this review of Everyone Brave is Forgiven by telling you that if you haven’t read a Chris Cleave novel yet, you are missing out on something very, very special. I recently read and adored The Other Hand, and this new novel lives up to all my expectations of this masterful storyteller.

Everyone Brave is Forgiven begins in London as the Second World War is declared, and takes us between London and Malta, where English troops are stationed. The difference between the locations is, initially, stark and sobering, but as war reaches London, comparisons begin to be drawn. There is terror, death and injury where buildings and joy once stood; Everyone Brave is Forgiven is a commentary on the horrors of war, the human cost and the reach of its terror.

At the same time, it is a story of love and small triumphs, of devotion and sorrow, of the capacity of the human mind, and body. It’s a story that will make you laugh out loud, and then cry into your tea. Cleave is a weaver of words, producing dazzling dialogue and setting sumptuous scenes. You’ll find yourself lost among the pages of Everyone Brave is Forgiven, such is the richness of the storytelling.

From the opening paragraph, I was hooked like a fish on a line:

War was declared at 11.15 and Mary North signed up at noon. She did it at lunch, before telegrams came in, in case her mother said no. She left finishing school unfinished. Skiing down from Mont-Choisi, she ditched her equipment at the foot of the slope and telegraphed the War Office from Lausanne.

The scene couldn’t have been more perfectly set, or our heroine more beautifully presented; from the outset, we are shown a Mary North who is much more complex than outward appearances might suggest.

Mary is from a wealthy family; a beautiful socialite who should marry someone from a similar background, and quietly support them in their endeavours. However, Mary is determined that her father’s political career will not define her, and throughout this book, she pushes all the boundaries of the stereotype she should be living up to.

She falls in love with Tom, a natural worrier and pessimist who is eager to please…as long as he doesn’t have to face the realities of war. He will do anything for Mary, but worries that she will find his pacifism a weakness. He doubts his ability to make her happy, yet does everything in his power to make her so. And he succeeds, for the most part, until the inhabitants of London can no longer deny that the war is coming to their shores.

With the arrival of Tom’s flatmate, Alistair, and his subsequent departure to the island of Malta, everything changes. War becomes not only a test of strength and power, but of love and friendship too; proving that the effects of war are not purely those that can be seen. There are prejudices and stereotypes to be disproved, friendships to be explored and tested, and hearts and minds that will be tested beyond any capacity you might expect.

Everyone Brave is Forgiven is poignant and beautiful, sorrowful and thought-provoking, and so powerfully written that I feel nothing I write can do it justice. Put this novel at the top of your “Must Read” list, and find a copy now (I’ll make it easy for you – buy it here from Hachette NZ)!

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Book Review: The One-in-a-Million Boy

The One-in-a-Million Boy

The One-in-a-Million Boy – Monica Wood
Published by Hachette NZ

Miss Ona Vitkus has – aside from three months in the summer of 1914 – lived unobtrusively, her secrets fiercely protected.

The boy, with his passion for world records, changes all that. He is eleven. She is one hundred and four years old, one hundred and thirty-three days old (they are counting). And he makes her feel like she might be really special after all. Better late than never…

If The One-in-a-Million Boy was a plate of food, I’d tell you that I inhaled it faster than the Cookie Monster eats cookies. The enigmatic blurb on the back of the book had me fascinated and curious from the moment the book arrived, and the story itself fulfilled everything that blurb promised.

It’s a beautiful, poignant, and delightful story, tinged with sadness, and sewn together with a cast of appealing and loveable characters.

There’s something so likeable about 104-year-old Ona Vitkus. She’s gracefully feisty and stubbornly witty. She doesn’t suffer fools lightly, and expects others to live up to their words. She doesn’t read as a woman of her age should, and it’s only the occasional references to her frailty that remind the reader that while she might be young of heart, she’s certainly not young of body. She has her secrets and has kept them locked away for most of her life, but something about the young boy scout who comes to do chores around her house makes her begin to reveal and remember more about her past.

Quinn Porter and his ex-wife Belle are both superbly written, curious characters. There is a feeling of growth for Quinn through the story, as a father, as an ex-partner, as a musician, and as a friend. Belle’s grief is palpable and believable – both for her son and her relationship with Quinn.

The One-in-a-Million Boy is fascinating and unique, and for the first time in a while, I felt like I wanted to start it all over again once I’d finished. I loved Wood’s style; she writes in a slightly quirky manner that fits perfectly with the story and characters, yet it’s still very readable and well-written.

Thanks to the Hachette NZ team for another brilliant read.

Book Review: Beloved Poison

Beloved Poison

Beloved Poison – E.S. Thomson
Published by Hachette NZ

We’re all aware of that old saying to “never judge a book by its cover”, but sometimes, I think you can predict what sort of novel you’re delving into just by staring at its cover. Beloved Poison had me hooked before I’d even opened to the first page; the cover is alluringly dark and deathly, and the pages within meet, and exceed, the expectations set by that first glance. Plus – there’s embossing, which is always a good start!

Beloved Poison is set in a grimy, festering, crumbling London hospital in the 1850s. Syphilis is rife within the city, jealousy seethes underneath the doctors’ skins, and a murderous secret lurks in the shadows of the wards.

The story is narrated by the apothecary, Jem Flockhart, an interesting observer of everything that happens within the walls of St Saviour’s Infirmary. Raised as a boy after her mother and twin brother died in childbirth, Jem is a conflicted young woman who doesn’t seem to “fit” anywhere in society. She has hidden her femininity all her life, and as a result of keeping her own precious secret, is painfully observant and aware of everything and everyone around her. When a young man arrives to oversee the excavation of St Saviour’s cemetary prior to the hospital’s demolition, they uncover a secret that’s been hidden for a number of years, and set out to solve the meaning behind their macabre discovery. However, someone doesn’t want them delving too deeply, and the results are deadly.

Beloved Poison is richly descriptive and elegantly composed. The images conjured of a dirty, disease-riddled city are powerful and evocative; with each page, you can almost smell the decay and the rotting earth.

The characters are beautifully created and explored, without Thomson falling into the habit of excessive descriptions of looks, clothing and demeanour. Words are not wasted; every sentence is well-thought out and vital to the unfolding story. This is a very clever, very dark story, one which I couldn’t put down until I’d turned to the last page. There were a few moments of predictability, but for most of the novel, I was left scratching my head, wondering who was behind the sinister happenings at St Saviour’s.

This is a very enjoyable read, that will keep you guessing right up until the final moments.

 

 

Book Review: The Butcher’s Hook

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The Butcher’s Hook – Janet Ellis
Published by Hachette NZ

Georgian London, in the summer of 1763.
At 19, Anne Jaccob, the elder daughter of well-to-do parents, meets Fub the butcher’s apprentice and is awakened to the possibilities of joy and passion.
Anne lives a sheltered life; her home is a miserable place and her parents have already chosen a more suitable husband for her than Fub.
But Anne is an unusual young woman and is determined to pursue her own happiness in her own way…even if that means getting a little blood on her hands.

The Butcher’s Hook is the darkly witty debut novel from British actress and presenter, Janet Ellis. It tells the story of 19-year-old Anne, who lives in a home void of happiness and full of tragic memories. Her cold and seemingly-unfeeling father has found Anne a husband; Mr Onions is as repulsive to Anne as his name suggests. To complicate matters, Anne has fallen in love with Fub, the butcher’s apprentice and delivery boy, and her world is suddenly thrown into a passion-filled turmoil.

This is the kind of novel that hooks you in from the very beginning, and even though the “action” doesn’t happen until at least three-quarters of the way through, it is a compelling read. Ellis has a very natural and very witty style, yet manages to keep an 18th-Century voice throughout the story. She captures a dirty, crowded London beautifully, without excessive narration; as I read, I was transported back to the city I called home for a while, but as it would have been in the past.

As a heroine, Anne Jaccob is a bit of an enigma. Outwardly, she seems to have it all; she is pretty, partly educated, and comes from a family of some means. Inwardly, however, she is much more complex, astute and devious than you’d expect. Her observations of the world around her, especially the people, are very sharp, often caustic and droll:

There was a pattern to our habits, too, but it was a dull one, devoid of colour. My father farted at nine o’clock in the morning as he performed his ablutions; the church clock chimed in his malodorous wake.

As Anne becomes more determined to control her own fate, her actions become stranger but more persistent. She begins to understand that there is an unexplored world outside her home’s four walls, and that sometimes, Fate needs a little helping hand. However, as her desire for this control grows, so too do the tragedies, yet she can’t find any reason to doubt that her actions are anything but right. She sweeps the reader along in her heady quest for love, but it eventually becomes obvious that lust and love are quite different. Towards the end of the novel, Anne experiences a moment of growth, and there is the possibility of redemption, but her determination and belief in her own actions is still very strong…

This is a novel full of dark surprises and sardonic wit; Ellis has created a devious yet likeable cast of characters, and the result is a novel that will leave you wanting more.

(As an aside, I love the cover of this book! The random selection of drawings won’t seem so random once you’ve started to read, I promise!)

Book Review: Hare and Tortoise

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Hare and Tortoise – Alison Murray
Published by Hachette NZ

Our copy of Hare and Tortoise was taken to kindy on the day I started this review, so Pickle could share it with his “class”. One of his teachers thought it was a great story to bring in, as they are currently talking to the kids about perseverance, resilience and independence. Their feedback was glowing – they thought it was an excellent re-telling, with mass appeal for the range of ages at kindergarten.

Everyone knows the story of the hare and the tortoise right? It’s probably one of Aesop’s most famous fables. This re-telling by Alison Murray is gorgeous, funny and contemporary, without losing the moral of the story.

My boys love it. The story is so appealing and the illustrations are just gorgeous. They love the comparison between Tortoise, who is very good at standing still, and a rock; they love the energy of Hare, who is not very good at standing still, but can run really, really fast.

It’s a witty re-telling, with such appealing illustrations (also by Murray); every page is a treat to read and explore, while still being snappy and lyrical. You can’t help but be swept along with Hare’s speed, and a few pages later, find yourself ambling along leisurely with Tortoise.

Another gem – already well-loved – from Hachette NZ – thanks team!

 

Book Review: Have You Seen Elephant?

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Have You Seen Elephant? – David Barrow
Published by Gecko Press

There are two Gecko Press books on rotation in our house at the moment: Ko Wai e Huna Ana? and Have You Seen Elephant?

Since it arrived last week, David Barrow’s beautifully-illustrated Have You Seen Elephant? has been thrust under my nose at every opportunity, accompanied by Pickle’s huge brown eyes and a cheeky grin.

He loves it.

Scratch that.

We love it.

It is, quite honestly, one of the funniest children’s books I’ve read in a while. Elephant wants to play hide-and-seek. The boy is keen, but Elephant just has to warn him…he is very good at hide-and-seek.

Such a simple concept, yet Barrows has executed it with some of the loveliest illustrations I’ve seen in a long time. They are so witty, so appealing, and just…well…beautiful.

We laugh our way through it every single read-through. Elephant’s great hiding skills elicit the same giggles from Pickle each time, especially when I pretend I can’t see that Elephant is hiding under a lamp or behind an incredibly skinny tree.

The ending is a little subtle for my three-and-a-half year old, but my nearly-six-year-old got it straight away and I thought he was going to choke on his own laughter: Turtle asks if they want to play tag, but he has to warn the boy…

Yet another Gecko Press gem that is yet to make it on to a shelf; thanks team!

Book Review: Who’s Afraid?

Who's Afraid?

Who’s Afraid? – Maria Lewis
Published by Hachette New Zealand, Jan 2016

Tommi Grayson’s never exactly been a normal girl. Bright blue hair, a mysterious past and barely controlled rage issues have a way of making a woman stand out. Yet she’s never come close to guessing who she really is…

Who’s Afraid? is the debut novel of New Zealand-born, Australia-based Maria Lewis. Described as a “fresh, witty, compelling tale with a pop culture edge”, this is a book that will see you turning your light off way past your bedtime, then leaping onto your bed for fear that something is lurking underneath. Fantasy isn’t my usual genre, but this is a different type of fantasy. It’s got an urban, supernatural vibe, mixed with elements of Maori culture, pop culture and contemporary life.

After the tragic death of her mother, Tommi Grayson leaves Scotland on a mission to track down her father in New Zealand, where she discovers that her heritage is much more complicated than her mother led her to believe. Her father was the head of a powerful Maori werewolf pack, and his family want to recruit her as one of their own.

Tommi escapes the pack, and returns to Scotland, accompanied by a Counsellor provided to her by an ancient governing body; Lorcan’s job is to help Tommi control and adjust to her werewolf self, making sure she transitions safely each full moon.

  • I couldn’t help comparing blue-haired Tommi to another blue-haired heroine I love, but as the story and characters developed, I lost the comparison. Tommi initially comes across as tough, unemotional and staunch, but we see a more mature and emotional side of her as the tale unfolds. The rest of the characters were strongly written; it’s a small cast, but a mostly likable one, and the relationships between them were also very believable.
  • Lewis’ writing style developed and matured along with Tommi’s character; I initially felt it was a bit stilted, but there was a chattiness to her writing that made it very easy to read and it moved along at a delectable pace.
  • The supernatural world that Tommi suddenly found herself part of was cleverly and casually unfolded rather than explained via a long-winded monologue by Lorcan or any other character (one aspect of fantasy fiction that usually puts me off)
  • There were gory fight scenes, a handful of bedroom encounters, and an attempted assault, all of which were much more explicit than I expected, but not difficult to read. There were a few expletives, so if swearing and hanky-panky in a novel isn’t your thing, this book might not be for you.
  • There were surprises along the way (when an author kills off some of the most loveable characters, that’s when you sit up and take notice), including the way the book ended – but that only indicates that there are more Tommi Grayson tales to come.

Book Review: The Bazaar of Bad Dreams

Bazaar of Bad Dreams

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams – Stephen King
Published by Hachette New Zealand, November 2015

I’ve always been a Stephen King fan, but in recent years I haven’t read many of his books because motherhood seems to have turned me into a bit of a scaredy cat.

However, I figured I’d be able to handle the horror in short doses, so started The Bazaar of Bad Dreams with a mixture of excitement and apprehension.

Stephen King writes a fascinating introduction to the entire collection of short stories (warning the reader to “…feel free to examine them, but please be careful. The best of them have teeth.”), but each story also has its own special introduction. King gives an insight into the inspiration for each story, giving the reader an intriguing look into his history, his literary journey, and the methods he uses to tell his stories.

There are twenty stories featured in the collection, some new, some published previously. There is likely to be a story that appeals to everyone, regardless of your feelings about horror stories. I have two very clear, very different favourites: Mile 81, and Mister Yummy.

The first story in the collection, Mile 81, was, for me, the most terrifying and chilling. It tells the story of a monster masquerading as a car in an abandoned rest area off the highway; while a young boy sleeps in an alcohol-induced stupor inside an old burger joint, car after car is abandoned as their owners are swallowed up by the vicious vehicle. I found the story compelling and frightening; I couldn’t stop reading, yet I didn’t want to read that another person had disappeared after stopping to help.

Mister Yummy appealed to me on a very different level, and I’m finding it hard to explain why. It tells the tale of old friends in a rest home, one of whom says he has started to see the past image of someone he used to know and as the spectre moves closer and closer, he knows he is going to die. It’s a beautiful and poignant story of friendship and the certainty of death; I find the imagery of Death as someone you once knew and fancied to be quite peaceful and almost reassuring.

The rest of the stories in The Bazaar of Bad Dreams are very good, but none scared me the same way as Mile 81, or resonated with me like Mister Yummy. If you are a hardened Stephen King horror fan, you might find the stories featured here a little tame. However, if you appreciate King for his way with words and his ability to write, really write, you will not be disappointed. And if you aren’t a Stephen King fan at all, I still think you’ll find yourself lost in this book. It’s a good ‘un.

Put this on your Christmas list for the book lover in your life – available to purchase online via Hachette.

Thank you, Hachette NZ, for this review copy.

 

 

Book Review: The Girl in the Spider’s Web

The Girl in the Spider's WebThe Girl in the Spider’s Web – David Lagercrantz
Published by Hachette NZ

To say I was excited to receive a copy of The Girl in the Spider’s Web is a major understatement. There was squealing and much dancing about in the kitchen; I wanted to begin it straight away, but I was trying to finish a library book before its due date, as well as review Everybody Rise and Devoted in Death.

When we packed for our epic school holiday adventure, The Girl in the Spider’s Web was one of the first things I put into my suitcase. The day I started it, I sat for a moment, stroking the cover and savouring the moment before diving in to what I hoped would be another extraordinary Millennium novel.

David Lagercrantz has bravely undertaken to continue Stieg Larsson’s highly successful series, a decision that could have been disastrous, but in reality has been pretty damn good.

I was hooked from the first page, and couldn’t put the book down (as my husband will attest to). I read and read and read, and suddenly I was – reluctantly – turning the last few pages. This was surprising, given that while I enjoyed the first three books in the series, I found them quite hard to get lost in.

I enjoyed Lagercrantz’s style. It is similar to Larsson’s, and this book is definitely a fitting tribute, but there was something more accessible about it. The pace was fast and exciting, but there was less focus on the technical stuff which appealed much more to me. There was the same explosive action, but it was slightly less graphic; Lagercrantz managed to convey the same sense of urgency and violence without the same gory detail.

The characters were interesting and varied; I felt Lisbeth Salander was slightly less edgy than before, but she’s also older and more mature, which would explain a few changes in her behaviour and thinking. I thought Lagercrantz did a great job of maintaining the integrity of the characters we’ve read before; he has captured both Mikael Blomkvist and Salander’s desire for justice very well.

The Girl in the Spider’s Web has an exciting plot, and I was taken aback at the “disposal” of a seemingly major player very early on. I had to re-read a page or two in order to be sure I had read it correctly, and once I realised I had, I was even more hooked than before.

The ending of the book made it very clear that there are more to come, and if Lagercrantz is going to be writing them, I will definitely be adding them to my bookshelf.

Thank you, Hachette NZ, for my review copy.

Book Review: Devoted in Death

Devoted in DeathDevoted in Death – J.D. Robb
Published by Hachette NZ

Having not read one of the 40-odd previous In Death stories, I had no idea what to expect from Devoted in Death. It’s the kind of book my husband buys to read when we go on holiday; the kind of book that I usually end up finishing before he does. Indeed, I finished this one while on holiday, and if he hadn’t been reading something else, I would have suggested he read it too.

In the beginning, I thought Devoted in Death was going to follow the same route as most crime thrillers, with a formulaic rehashing of the character histories and past traumas. However. I was pleasantly surprised that Robb merely hinted at previous books, teasing me into thinking I’d better seek them out to discover who the characters were and what had shaped them.

I enjoyed Robb’s style of writing, and her ability to tell a gruesome story in a succinct and gripping way. Devoted in Death was clever and fast-paced, and as the number of remaining pages dwindled, I began to turn them faster than ever before.

The characters were interesting; I enjoyed the relationships between them, and the minor players. I’m not sure whether I liked Lieutenant Eve Dallas or not, but I felt a sort of respect for her ability to think outside the box and her determination to solve the crime.

Devoted in Death was a good read, and I’ll definitely be looking to read some of the previous storied soon.

Thank you to Hachette NZ for my review copy.