Hastings District Libraries

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

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Landscape with Solitary Figure by Shonagh Koea

Shonagh Koea is one of my favourite New Zealand authors. After a hiatus in her novel writing, I was delighted when she produced Landscape with Solitary Figure last year. Rather than mine any new ground, she has written a further novel featuring a solitary woman in middle age who, like many of her previous characters, is haunted by events in her past.

Ellis Leigh lives quietly in her seaside cottage, gardening and selling off the odd antique, when a letter arrives from a man who years ago played a terrible trick on her. This story is revealed slowly through the book and takes you back ten years to Ellis’s life in a different town, the build-up to Martin Dodd’s terrible act of bullying, and Ellis’s escape.

It is a novel on a small scale, full of rich and quirky detail – food, gardens, clothes and, of course, antiques, and the impression you have of Ellis's life is the kind of shabby gentility of reduced circumstances. Her sensitivity and shyness is seen as snobbishness which attracts a meanness among those from her circle of acquaintances.

This gives Koea a canvas on which to create some wonderful scenes, laced with her trademark dark humour. What I particularly like about her books is the atmosphere she creates, the subtle nuances and the prose where every sentence is written with care. It all adds up to a unique reading experience and books that can happily be enjoyed again and again.

Posted by JAM

Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

The Girl on the Train is one of the most talked about thrillers of recent months, with comparisons to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and talks of a likely movie. So I felt it my duty to give Paula Hawkins' debut novel a try. And this wasn’t difficult because Hawkins knows how to draw the reader in with her mixture of unreliable narrators and a plot that slowly picks up pace and powers to a suspenseful conclusion.

Much of the story is from the point of view of Rachel, an alcoholic who would like her old husband and house back. But he’s moved on with a new wife and baby. So Rachel, whose drinking has ruined her marriage and lost her both job and income, keeps up a sham of travelling to work each day on the same commuter train, where she can see her old house from the window. Further along the street she also watches the house where Jess and Jason live, the couple she imagines have the perfect life.

The tension moves up a notch when Jess (real name: Megan) disappears soon after Rachel makes a shocking discovery. She tries to tell the police but they just see her as a pathetic fantacist and perhaps they’re right. And what is the cause of Rachel's lurking sense of dread?

Rachel isn’t the only character who isn’t who they seem and soon her anxiety becomes the reader’s anxiety and a number of unexpected plot twists make for thrilling reading. I imagine The Girl on the Train will make a terrific film full of ominous clackety-clack railway sound effects and looming shadows a la Hitchcock.

Posted by JAM

Catalogue link: The Girl on the Train

Friday, March 20, 2015

After the Bombing by Clare Morrall

Clare Morrall is fast becoming one of my favourite authors. Her latest book, After the Bombing, offers a refreshing view of the impact of the Second World War on ordinary lives in England. The bombing in question happens in Exeter in 1942.

Alma Braithwaite is at her boarding school when she and her fellow students are chivvied off in their nighties to an air-raid shelter to wait for the all-clear. When the raid is over her school is in ruins, and her parents, doctors working at the local hospital, are both dead.

Tracking forward twenty odd years we find Alma still living in her parents’ house, working as music teacher at her old school and, until recently, alongside her old headmistress who has died suddenly. In comes replacement headmistress, Wilhemena Yates, a new broom but with her own wartime bombing tragedy. She and Alma are set to clash horns.

Meanwhile, Pippa Gunner arrives in Alma’s form class and memories of the war come flooding back. Pippa's father, Robert, is the same Mr Gunner who as a young lecturer in charge of a student hostel took in Alma and her three best friends while their school was being rebuilt.

The novel captures two interesting periods of history and finishes with one cataclysmic event where history and personal lives collide.  But as always with a Clare Morrall novel, it is the characters and their curious quirks of personality that create so much of the drama. The tragedy of the past is balanced with music, humour and dancing. This is a charming and thought provoking novel from a talented writer.

Posted by JAM

Catalogue link: After the bombing