Book Review: First Person by Richard Flanagan

Out of work and broke, want-to-be writer Kif Kehlman is offered a contract to ghost write a book about a notorious criminal, Ziggy Heidl. Interestingly, the young Richard Flanagan actually did ghost write for John Friedrich who defrauded Australian banks of more than $300m in the 1980’s. Working in banking at the time, I well remember Friedrich and what he did and so I was very interested to read this book. As a fan of Flanagan’s incredible, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, I had very high expectations.

Kif tries desperately, against a pressing timeline, to get information from Ziggy only to find that his subject is not only close mouthed but when he does say something, it is merely a multitude of lies. How is Kif expected to pull together a memoir of fifty to sixty thousand words?

As you would expect the book is very well written and the prose at times, breathtaking. However, I found it painstakingly slow. By page one hundred, the premise about Kif, his writer’s angst and his struggles with Ziggy, so repetitive it barely kept me interested.

Then things seemed to turn. Kif’s mental state slowly deteriorates as his own violence emerges from the growing struggle about his art which he uses as an excuse for not taking enough responsibility for his family and himself. His growing frustration with the lies and lack of information from Ziggy matched my own discontent as I doggedly hoped for something to happen with this character.

Unlikeable, Kif was self-absorbed and this was probably the point. Ziggy was an oddball and should have had enough charm to entice any trusting person into his web of deceit, yet somehow I didn’t feel this was as convincing as it was meant to be. The development of their relationship seemed unbelievable. Perhaps if Ziggy had been more co-operative as a character, spinning plausible and consistent lies which Kif later uncovers, the relationship toward the end may have worked better. But who am I to recast the story? Perhaps it’s not really fiction after all.

There were moments of humour, frustration and tension. Sorry Richard, I love your books, just not this one.

Book Review: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

There’s a lot packed into this book as the author explores the perfect suburban lifestyle of middle class America to examine race, teenage angst, and economic division.

The premise of the book hooked me. Elena Richardson, mother of four teenage children, journalist and wife of a lawyer husband lives in a middle class progressive suburb called Shaker Heights. Mia Warren, artist and single mother to teenager, Pearl, lives an itinerant lifestyle in the pursuit of her art until they decide to lay down roots in Shaker Heights in the Richardson’s investment apartment. When Elena Richardson’s best friend, Mrs McCullough tries to adopt a Chinese baby, a custody battle ensues with the birth mother which divides the entire community, placing Elena and Mia on opposing sides with unexpected consequences.

Shaker Heights plays an important role in this novel. “… had been founded, if not on Shaker principles, with the same idea of creating utopia. Order – and regulation, the father of order – had been the Shaker’s key to harmony.” I imagined a Stepford Wives, Desperate Housewives meets The Truman Show type of place – all perfectly in order.

The beginning is a jolt when we find out that Elena’s youngest daughter Izzy has set fire to the Richardson’s perfect suburban home. It’s not until the end that we get a sense as to why. In between, the life of the Richardson’s perfect family unfolds slowly until the second half when it ramps up with misunderstandings, resulting in twists and turns we don’t see coming.

The characters of Elena and her teenage children, Lexie, Trip and Moody are detailed although the teenagers seem to be typical of a movie cast. Mention of the difficult Izzy is sprinkled through the novel although at times, I had forgotten there was indeed another child – the one who had burnt down their house. What we do learn about Izzy is her mother’s fractious relationship with the girl which causes the teenager’s angst and rebellion. Yet Elena’s relationship with Izzy has more depth than with her other children for whom she barely gives any time.

Living a life with few possessions and little security, Mia and Pearl on the other hand have a beautiful relationship which is what draws Izzy, Moody and Lexie to Mia who gives them what Elena cannot. But Mia is far from perfect with secrets of her own.

Elena is comforted by the regimen of rules and regulations of Shaker Heights but her family’s intense involvement with Mia disturbs her so much that she breaks some of her own rules with disastrous consequences.

There is a lot to like about this book as it draws you into the bonds and rights of motherhood, friendships, unrequited love as well as middle class entitled attitudes. The males in the story are necessary props having little influence in what is going on.

I liked the author’s treatment of  Mrs Mc McCullough and her yearning anguish for a baby. The way race and class was dealt with, was clever as was the unfolding debate about the adoption of a Chinese baby. The white middle class view comes out brilliantly. “In the future we’ll all be able to look past race. You can just see what a wonderful mother she is,” one of the McCullough’s neighbours said… “You can tell that when she looks down at that baby in her arms, she doesn’t see a Chinese baby. All she sees is a baby, plain and simple.”

And the debate that a white wealthy couple are entitled to have a Chinese baby, instead of her poverty stricken Chinese mother, divides opinion everywhere picking off the scab to expose the ugliness of what racism can be, just because people can’t put themselves in the shoes of anyone else who is different. And this is the part of the book which I enjoyed the most.

However, there were some holes which bothered me and seemed almost too contrived as if to make everything fit nice and neatly to get to an end where you are left with questions. To reveal them would delve into spoiler territory but the motivations behind Elena, and in particular, Izzy was not quite satisfying and in some cases required a leap of faith to accept.

Little Fires Everywhere (which is a great title) is a very well written and easy to read book, digging deep and provoking thought about the middle-class suburban lifestyle. While I did enjoy this book, I didn’t love it. Would I recommend it? Yes, go ahead and check it out.

Book Review: The Jade Lily by Kirsty Manning

 

I was so thoroughly immersed in this story, I had trouble putting it down.

This is another book which has two main characters, Romy and her granddaughter, Alexandra with dual time lines, the present, and the past, set during WW2. We are transported back to a time when Romy as a young Jewish girl escapes Austria in 1938 with her family and finds refuge in Shanghai where she grows up forming close friendships with a Chinese girl, Li and fellow Austrian, Nina. Their world soon changes with the occupation by the Japanese and the consequent liberation by the Americans, forces Romy to take drastic action to survive.

Alexandra is a trader who comes home broken hearted from a love affair in London for the funeral of her grandfather. We learn that Alexandra was brought up by her doting grandparents when her adopted Chinese mother and Australian father were killed in a car accident when she was a toddler. She begins digging into family secrets which Romy has withheld from everyone including her own husband.

I’d read nothing about Shanghai during the war and this was a well-researched and fascinating piece of history. Thousands of refugees escaped Europe and found a life in Shanghai until the Japanese took control. The atrocities by the Nazi’s and the Japanese is brutal but not overdone. The mix of cultures in the melting pot of Shanghai’s diverse population was described brilliantly as was the description of its architecture both in modern and historical contexts. Chinese medicine features strongly giving readers further information about its healing properties, both physical and mental.

The characters are well drawn and strong women in their own right with a love for each other which is heartfelt and touching, particularly toward the climax of the story. The historical details are weaved appropriately using the dual timelines which works really well.

There is something for everyone in this story of love, loss and survival against all odds. It’s a page turner by Australian author Kirsty Manning and you won’t be sorry getting hold of this one.

 

Book Review: The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart by Holly Ringland

 

 

The cover is amazing and I knew I was in for something powerful when I read the first line of this book. “In the weatherboard house at the end of the lane, nine-year-old Alice Hart sat at her desk by the window and dreamed of ways to set her father on fire.”

Alice is the daughter of an abusive father. When tragedy strikes, Alice finds herself living with a grandmother she didn’t know she had, on a native flower farm where she grows up loved and protected. Her grandmother, June, a tormented woman with hidden secrets loves Alice with such an intensity that when she betrays her granddaughter to protect her, sets off a course for Alice neither of whom can reverse.

This is an expansive novel covering twenty years with twists and turns as the family secrets unravel and Alice finds out about her tumultuous past. The first hundred or so pages are gripping and I found myself holding my breath. The family violence is harrowing but thankfully short-lived . Then the narrative slows in the second third and meanders almost in a healing way as Alice settles into her new life at the native flower farm. The reader, unlike Alice is led tauntingly into the family secrets. June communicates best through flowers and this is emphasised cleverly when each chapter opens with the name of a native flower reflecting the theme.

Frustration grows as June is unable to tell Alice the truth about her family and for me this was a touch longer than I would have liked. There was some repetition and at times, Alice’s behaviour seemed to be at odds for a child with trauma. The last third, however was a page turner and I was unable to put it down.

I enjoyed the supporting characters, Twig, Lulu, Candy who all offered Alice their strength when needed. June was more complex and I felt little sympathy for her. The settings from the lush tropics to the red outback are wonderfully portrayed as of course are the flowers.

This is a story of loss, love and betrayal, and I now see native flowers in a very different way.

Book Review: The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

This is a disturbing book, beautifully written,  as well as shocking.

It opens in Saigon in April 1975 in the villa of a General of the South Vietnamese army. His right hand man, the Captain, unbeknownst to the General and anyone else is an undercover Vietcong agent. In the chaos of defeat, the Captain, the General and numerous others flee Vietnam and make it to America where the Captain continues his spying activity. The Captain finds himself in a dilemma and the opening lines hook you in. “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces… I am simply able to see any issue from both sides.”

Reading this gripping Pulitzer Prize winning novel, I felt the constant tug of being in two minds. The Captain is the son of a peasant woman and a French priest which makes for an unhealthy start in life as he is ridiculed and treated as an outsider, eternally in conflict.

Having watched movies and read about the Vietnam War, it has only ever been from a Western point of view. This novel paints a very different picture. In America, the Captain is assigned the job of being a cultural adviser to the director of a movie about the war which we soon realise is Apocalypse Now.

“An audience member might love or hate this Movie, or dismiss it as only a story, but those emotions are irrelevant. What mattered was that the audience member, having paid for a ticket, was willing to let American ideas and values seep into the vulnerable tissue of his brain and the absorbent soil of his heart.”

There are many side observations like this throughout the narrative which makes the reader think and reflect. There are also moments of pure comedy bordering on the ludicrous which is an antidote to the horror of what people are forced to do during a war. The Captain’s torment grows with the ghost of deeds done past and present.

The first half of this book pummels you along, the middle is reflective and as times slow with the end almost unbearable to read. Yet it is an important book for all sides of politics and philosophies.

Put this one your list.

Book Review: The Passengers by Eleanor Limprecht

Pic from Goodreads

I was filled with sadness but more importantly hope when I finished this book. Sadness because I wanted more. Hope, because in the end I wanted the best for the characters of Sarah and especially her granddaughter, Hannah. These two characters’ sail halfway around the world from America to Australia so that Sarah can be reunited with the family she left as a war bride to begin a new life in America. Her granddaughter Hannah accompanies her and we are privy not only to the unfolding of Sarah’s life but that of Hannah.

The history of American soldiers in Australia is beautifully told but the little known fact that hundreds of Australian war brides were shipped out after the war was astounding. As an Australian in America, Sarah confronts not only a new life as a bride but the harshness of acceptance. Her accent is both ridiculed and admired as she confronts choices as to how she wants to live and the secrets she keeps from the family she escaped from in Australia. Her granddaughter on the other hand has a different set of concerns with secrets she can’t share which cause her suffering and heartache.

On the journey, Sarah reveals her past to her granddaughter and the reason why she hadn’t been home for more than sixty years. This forces Hannah to confront her own secret. The love they have for each other is heart-warming and the split narrative works very nicely. I warmed to both characters and wanted to know more about Hannah and her disorder and we are left wondering and hoping that she will deal with it.

This is a thoroughly researched novel, easy to read and compelling. Give it a go.

Book Review: The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

I’m still recovering from reading this phenomenal story about a boy who meets a girl and how they fall in love. Simple. Yes, it’s the sort of story told many times over the ages. Except for one thing. This tale is set in the most horrific place ever conjured up in the world – a concentration camp of pure hell. What makes this even more incredible is that this is not make-believe – it all happened. How Heather Morris painstakingly researched and put together this story is incredible. She manages to take Lale and Gita’s story and weave a thing of beauty, survival, drama and love.

Lale is a survivor with wit and determination whose job is to tattoo numbers on the arms of each prisoner as they are brought in to Auschwitz. He meets Gita when he tattoos her arm. Against all odds their love grows as they both survive numerous scrapes and almost death. Lale gains trust from his captives and uses his position to not only survive but help as many as he can.

Heather Morris leads us into the camp and gives a tour of brutality, death and inhumanity. At times, it’s almost too much and then she deftly gives us the relief of Lale’s antics – sneaking a kiss from Gita or using a dopey SS officer to smuggle letters to her. There are tears and smiles as we quickly grow to love this couple.

We are reminded however that history has a habit of repeating itself as with all wars since, continues to cause insurmountable misery and grief for so many. Only a week ago refugees were adrift on the Mediterranean Sea fleeing from war.

Lale and Gita’s story needed to be told and I’m grateful to Heather Morris for persisting and bringing it to us. This is a book which will stay with me for a very long time and is highly recommended.