Hastings District Libraries

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Edwin and Matilda

New Zealand’s South Island makes an atmospheric setting for Laurence Fearnley’s novel, Edwin and Matilda. Subtitled ‘an unlikely love story’, it traces the developing relationship between Edwin, a recently-retired wedding photographer, and Matilda, the soon-to-be bride at Edwin’s last assignment.

Edwin is on his way to Franz Joseph to meet the mother he had thought was dead. He has not seen her since he was a young boy growing up in a tuberculosis sanatorium where his father was a doctor. Many years later Edwin discovered a photograph of his mother in a tourist magazine but has waited until his retirement to try to find her.

When he drops in to deliver Matilda’s photos, he learns that not only did her wedding never eventuate, but that Matilda is eager to make a documentary, and Edwin’s quest is an ideal opportunity. Matilda is a quirky young woman in her early twenties with fragile health. As Edwin slowly discovers his family history, Matilda’s own difficult relationship with her mother unfolds as well as the terrible facts of her illness.

The two make their way across the South Island and their stories unravel against the rugged landscape, a stark contrast with the cramped spaces where their conversations seem to take place: the inside of Edwin’s car and poky motel units.

Fearnley is a wonderfully spare and refined writer and her characters original and sympathetic. Although this is an ‘unlikely’ love story, there is nothing awkward here. I also enjoyed her imagining of Edwin's childhood in a TB sanatorium and the sadness of his parents' relationship is particularly moving. This is a lovely novel, compelling and elegant.

Posted by Jam

Catalogue link: Edwin and Matilda

Monday, May 11, 2015

Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead

Winn van Meter is having something of an emotional crisis! His eldest daughter Daphne is pregnant and getting married in just a few days, his younger daughter Livia is brooding after a lost love, a somewhat unwanted array of relatives and future in-laws have arrived for the wedding and he is lusting after vivacious bridesmaid Agatha!

Seating Arrangements examines pretensions, expectations and disappointments in a way that is both witty and sad. It is well written, with a situation and setting that allows good scope for the action. Several points-of-view are examined, but it’s Winn and Livia who dominate the narrative and as such have some of the best and most outlandish scenes in the book. It’s rare to come across a scene that you’ve never read the likes of before and yet there is one in this book that you’d be unlikely to find again!

Maggie Shipstead is obviously a talented young writer and this, her debut novel, is a good start. It is a very readable if not entirely enjoyable book. The disappointment for me was a decided lack of likeable characters. Even one perhaps may have added to the emotional connection required for me to truly love a book. I would recommend it as a good filler book – great for public transport, a few days off, or a break between more serious reads. I look forward immensely to reading her next works and tracking her progression as a writer.

Seating Arrangements is the Winner of the LA Times Book Prize for First Fiction & the Dylan Thomas Prize. It is a NY Times Bestseller.

Posted by CP

Catalogue link: Seating Arrangements

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

A God in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie

A God in Every Stone is an ambitious novel that carries the reader through major events of the last century - from the First World War to the developing independence movement in India. It is all tidily brought together through the viewpoints of three main characters.

Vivian Spencer is a budding archaeologist who has joined the dig run by family friend Tahsin Bey, a Turk with Armenian sympathies. The Kaiser’s sabre rattling seems far away in Labraunda as the two make new discoveries including a growing fondness for each other. When war in Europe is declared, Vivian is whisked back home to wait it out.

Working in a war hospital threatens to destroy Vivian's sanity, and she begs to go to Peshawar in the north of India as it was then, to another dig much talked about by Bey. She meets our second narrator on a train.

Pashtun soldier Qayyum Gul has returned from Ypres after losing an eye and is disillusioned with the Empire he bravely fought for. It is his younger brother, Najeeb, who discovers a kindred spirit in Vivian, and the two take on the role of teacher and pupil, much to the dismay of Najeeb’s family. More than a decade later, as stirrings of unrest take hold of the region, the three characters meet again when a clash of cultures comes to a head.

The three narrators have very different points of view but each gathers the reader’s sympathies. Shamsie creates plenty of drama round them, in settings richly brought to life, keeping you glued to the page. On top of that she gives you a wonderful understanding of the period, a time of social change and a crumbling empire. This is seasoned by the archaeological references which remind you that every event is a mere dot in the vastness of history.

Posted by JAM

Catalogue link: A God in Every Stone

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Swimming in the Dark by Paddy Richardson

Serena is a bright 15 year old living in Alexandra under the shadow of her rat-bag family’s reputation. When something horrific happens to her she is convinced no one will believe her story and goes into hiding. Her rescuers, trusted teacher Ilse and Ilse’s mother Gerda, have their own brutal family secrets from life in their native East Germany.

Richardson brings alive her characters in a believable way. Serena yearns to get away from her small town life and dysfunctional family and gain an education. Ilse and Gerda strive for quiet uncomplicated lives as immigrants while remembering the good and sometimes horrifically bad experiences of life in their former home.

Life under the scrutiny of the Stasi, East Germany’s secret police agency, is described in grim detail. This most hated and feared institution infiltrated every aspect of daily life, eventually for Gerda in the most brutal way imaginable. Her experiences are revisited as she becomes determined to protect Serena as her abuser closes in.

This book is difficult to categorise; it is part gripping psychological drama, part literary drama detailing the recent history of the former East Germany before the fall of Communism. Themes of family, helplessness, power and courage come together in a powerful and suspenseful novel.

I have not read Paddy Richardson before but will definitely search out her previous four novels (all held by Hastings District Libraries). She lives in Dunedin where she writes and teaches courses in creative writing.

Posted by Katrina H

Catalogue link: Swimming in the Dark

Monday, April 20, 2015

Self's Murder by Bernhard Schlink

You may remember Bernhard Schlink as the German author of The Reader - that wonderful novel about a teenage boy in post war Germany who has an affair with a woman whom he rediscovers as a law student when she is being tried for war crimes. It was made into a seriously good film starring Ralph Fiennes and Kate Winslet.

Before all that, Schlink wrote some fairly decent detective fiction featuring his Mannheim private eye Gerhard Self. The last of the series, Self’s Murder, has his protagonist contemplating retirement when he takes on a final case for a banker named Welker. Recently Welker's wife disappeared in the mountains while the couple were on a walking holiday, either the victim of a tragic accident or of foul play.

But oddly enough this isn’t case at hand. Welker wants Self to discover the identity of a silent partner in the bank’s history, before the rise of the Nazi Party. Self has a few awkward run-ins with Welker’s chauffeur and general factotum, Gregor Samarin, and then discovers he is being followed by ex-Stasi officer, Karl-Heinz Ulrich, who insists he is Self’s son.

There’s extortion, murder and several mad-cap episodes as the story builds towards an interesting twist. Schlink’s characters are all degrees of quirky giving the novel a lightness of touch, while Self is an urbane, philosophical sort of chap and as such makes a wonderful narrator. For a distinctly different kind of mystery, the Self books are well worth a look.

Posted by JAM

Catalogue link: Self's Murder

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Post Office Girl by Stefan Zweig

I am yet to watch the Oscar winning film The Grand Budapest Hotel, a story influenced by the life and writings of Austrian war-time writer Stefan Zweig; when I do though I shall eagerly look for references to The Post Office Girl.

This is a novel in two distinct and abruptly different parts. In part one the reader is introduced to civil servant Christine, who works without complaint at the post office in a small Austrian town. Her life shuffles between the banal and just plain tiring, after which she returns home to tend to her ailing mother. Post-war austerity has robbed Christine of the joys of being a young woman.

“The war stole her decade of youth. She has no courage, no strength left even for happiness”.

Out of nowhere an invitation is extended to Christine by her wealthy aunt to join her and her husband at a Swiss resort. Christine is quickly drawn into a world of glamour and luxury and naively believes she belongs there. Zweig’s description of Christine’s experience is dizzying and lavish, but when she is suddenly sent packing by her aunt the reality of her situation becomes too much for Christine to bear.

Part two sees Christine return to her former life with a bitterness and despair that knows no bounds. She is introduced to Ferdinand, a disabled war-veteran, and in him Christine finds a similarly disillusioned soul. This section of the book is a grim look at how poverty is all consuming. It seems much more political than part one and it hammers home (perhaps somewhat repetitively at times) the point that the world is a different and unforgiving place for those on the fringes of society.

“The vast power of money, mighty when you have it and even mightier when you don’t, with its divine gift of freedom and the demonic fury it unleashes on those forced to do without it...”

The book ends abruptly after Christine and Ferdinand formulate a plan to take back control of their lives. While we are given no clues as to how their story ends it ultimately feels like a tragedy.

Posted by CP

Catalogue link: The Post Office Girl

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans

Lissa Evans' new novel has an unprepossessing title and slightly oddball cover art. But don't let that put you off as within these pages is pure gold.

Crooked Heart is set during the London blitz, from which ten-year-old Noel, with his sticky-out ears and enormous vocabulary, is evacuated. He winds up with Vee, who is a bit of chancer, always looking out for a new way to make some slightly dodgy money.

She hasn’t been very successful and with the rent due, starts to get desperate, until Noel decides he can help. The two make a brilliant team and the novel traces their varying fortunes and budding relationship. Meanwhile, the blitz is raging and Noel, on discovering a terrible crime, is determined to see justice done, a decision that will put him in danger.

This is a wonderful story about how unusual times can forge the strangest of relationships and Evans creates some wonderfully original characters. There’s Vee's son, Donald, who has also found his own get-rich-quick scheme which can be possible only in wartime, as well as Vee’s mother who spends many hours writing to Churchill, giving him the benefit of her advice.

The novel is enriched by quirky humour and the writing is stunning, full of evocative imagery which is a delight to read. Crooked Heart has made the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction long-list (formerly the Orange Prize). Look out for the short-list early next week, with the winner announced on 3 June.

Posted by JAM

Catalogue link: Crooked Heart