28 April, 2015

What she left by T. R. Richmond [Kathy, Collections Development]

We are introduced to the ‘she’ of the title, Alice, in an article she wrote for a magazine when she was 15 years old. Directly after that a post in an online student’s forum discusses an accident at a local river, and from then on the account of Alice’s life, and eventually death, is crafted from reproductions of various media created by her and those around her – the things she left.

The plot may not be that much different from any that examines an unexplained death, but the method T R Richmond uses to craft this novel is really original. The forum posts, emails, tweets and even lists of music from online music streaming sites each reveal a snippet about Alice and the incidents that lead to her demise.
I didn't find any of the characters particularly appealing but despite that, cared enough about them to want to find out more.
I liked how the documents weren't arranged in a chronological order which meant incidents were revealed gradually and as soon as I thought I knew how Alice died, a new piece of information took me on a different tangent.

A good suspense novel is one where you don’t see the ending coming, and this was certainly the case with this title. It is one I’ll be recommending to many.

Author: T.R. Richmond
ISBN: 9780718179366
Published: 2015
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

27 April, 2015

Brown girl dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson [Surani, Waitakere Central]

What captivated my attention with this title wasn't just the striking cover, but the plethora of reviews online wherever I looked. Written entirely in free verse, a format I hadn't actively read since high school, I found the whole book quite a different experience. This beautifully written book describes the harsh reality of the author's life during a pivotal moment in African American history.

Each poem told a story of an episode of the author's childhood. Jacqueline Woodson was raised in South Carolina and later in Brooklyn, New York during the 1960's and 70's. Through her journey as a young child the one constant that made Jacqueline and her siblings stand up a little taller and shine brighter was the deep family love and pride. Her eloquent poetry not only describes her hopes and fears, but also the joy of finding her voice through writing. Readers of this book will delight in witnessing her growing love of stories - and her funny, touching experiments in storytelling - as she exhibits the first sparks of the writer she was to become.

Jacqueline Woodson's honest writing, in my eyes, expertly describes some aspects of African-American life that I hadn't seen represented in children's literature before. This memoir tells so much more truth than most of the non-fiction that is out there for children. I believe that Brown girl dreaming has something in it for everyone no matter how old you are.

It is only right that Jacqueline Woodson has claimed the American National Book Award 2014 and a handful of other awards for this exceptional piece of writing.

Title: Brown girl dreaming
Author: Jacqueline Woodson
ISBN: 9780399252518
Published: 2014
Publisher: New York: Nancy Paulsen Books

18 April, 2015

Spook : Science Tackles the Afterlife by Mary Roach [Christine, Takapuna Library]

Mary Roach would like to believe that personality and memory survives after death but she is too much of a scientist to accept it without proof.  She looks for this proof world-wide and into accounts written by eye-witnesses long ago.

Reincarnation seems to happen mostly in India. A family is happy to accept the return of a favourite uncle as a baby in a neighbouring village but prompted 'memories' and commonality of village life leave Mary unconvinced.

Ghostly appearances seem to occur in the West. Charlatans most certainly did operate (and undoubtedly still do). Their 'effects' seem ludicrous today but deceived many ordinary people when they were first practiced. Ectoplasm, a strange substance resembling wet cheesecloth coming from the body of the medium is ... just cheesecloth!  

Anatomists have spent hours looking for the physical seat of the soul.  Even recently some believed that they had deduced its exact weight.  

What is most intriguing are those ghostly occasions where there seems to be no advantage to the reporter to make up a ghostly experience. Delusion or a true visitation?  

Title: Spook : Science Tackles the Afterlife
Author: Mary Roach
Publisher: Norton
Place of publication: New York
Date: 2005
ISBN: 039305626

All the light we cannot see : a novel by Anthony Doerr [Anita, Blockhouse Bay]

syndetics-lcSet in the 1930's and 40's this novel follows two young people.  Told in brief alternating chapters, the protagonists start far apart, but connections have already been made at the beginning, and you know that their paths will eventually intersect. 

Marie-Laure is blind. She has grown up in Paris and has been raised by her father who is the locksmith for the Museum of Natural History. They flee Paris when the German forces arrive and take refuge with an eccentric great uncle in the city of Saint-Malo on the Brittany coast. There, as he did before, he constructs a detailed model of their neighborhood so she can memorize it with her fingers. After her father goes missing she is drawn into the resistance with her uncle, housekeeper, and a hidden radio. Into the mix is thrown a (cursed?) sapphire, which may be the real thing or a copy, which was entrusted to her father.  A German finds his way to Saint-Malo following it's trail.

Werner is an orphan in a mining town, destined at age 15 to go into the mines that killed his father. He is gifted in science and maths and his ability to understand and repair radios gets him noticed and earns him a place in an elite but brutal Nazi training school. Ultimately he is put in a specialized team to track the Resistance by their use of radio. He travels all over Europe and in 1944 ends up in Saint-Malo. While here the city is bombed by the U.S Air Force and he becomes trapped in the ruins of an hotel.

This is not really a triumph over adversity book, the characters are firmly grounded in the reality of the times. The author deftly describes "the deprived civilian conditions of war-torn France, the strictly controlled lives of the military occupiers".  Werner often has to choose between morality and opportunity. It is the decisions he makes at the end which throw the two together.

A compelling read, the story draws you in and the characters are interesting and sympathetic. The short chapters make it really easy to keep on reading, and the narrative, while long, seems to race past. Cleverly and beautifully written - recommended.

Title: All the light we cannot see : a novel

Author: Anthony Doerr
Publisher: New York : Scribner
Date: 2014
ISBN: 9780007548668

16 April, 2015

What came before by Anna George (Biddy, Highland Park)

When Elle meets David they feel an immediate connection. Their relationship is intense and impulsive and its deterioration makes a compelling read. This is Anna George's debut novel and she tackles the topic of domestic violence with an admirable balance of candid realism and sensitivity.

The book opens with David's shocking confession. He is using his dictaphone to record a statement admitting that he has murdered his wife. The book continues with flashbacks to their meeting two years earlier and then  moves back to the present with David's panic at his actions. In contrast, Elle hovers above her battered body and replays their past in a calm and detached manner. She recalls her conviction that they were the new Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant and how they watched their idols' films at a moonlight cinema on an early date.

Anna George's debut novel is a page-turner,combining edge-of-seat-thriller with the powerful narration of a passionate relationship unraveling into domestic abuse. Her characters are real and complex and carry the reader with them to discover their fate.

I look forward to more from this emerging Australian writer. Recommended to readers who enjoyed Gone Girl and The Lovely Bones.

Title:  What Came Before
Author: Anna George
Publisher: Penguin, Melbourne
Date: 2014
ISBN: 9780670077731

15 April, 2015

In a World [Louise, Central Library]

This Staff Pick should be read (preferably out loud) in a deep, American-accented movie trailer voice.


Okay, go: In a world where the only people who do movie trailer voice overs are men, one woman tries to break into the industry. Carol (Lake Bell) finds herself competing with her dad, the arrogant and seasoned vocal artist who prefers the status quo, and the hotshot vocal artist Gustav Warner (Ken Marino) to voice the trailer for a new blockbuster quadrilogy.

Who is Lake Bell? Her name is just two random nouns. But learn that name, because she is awesome. She wrote, directed AND starred in this indie movie, and it’s also awesome. Want to know more? Geena Davis, Tig Notaro, lots of female characters that aren’t stereotypes, and a bunch of actors who were cast for their voices and not their looks.

The take-home message is feminism! Be heard, ladies! Now that is a message I can totally dig. You’ll laugh, you’ll cheer, you’ll wonder why more movies aren’t also 89 minutes long! Yes, you have time for this movie.

Title: In a World
Director: Lake Bell
Year: 2013
Distributed by: Sony Pictures (NZ)

Band of angels: the forgotten world of early Christian women by Kate Cooper [Annie, Helensville Library]

History fascinates me  the history of women in particular – so my interest was raised by this as it passed by my eyes. Thanks to my liberal religious upbringing, I’ve pondered the history of women in the Bible. Controversial, and heterodox writings, such as Holy blood, Holy grail, are part of my reading history. So, anything on the history of women within Christianity intrigues me. 

The author is a professor of ancient history and a Christian. Her research is solid, as you’d hope, and her speculations are stated as such. 

Women’s roles in Roman Empire are explored, using both the scattered references in the Bible (for example, women like Phoebe, mentioned in Romans 16: 1-2, a supporter of Paul); and historical figures ( including, but not limited to, Helena, Emperor Constantine’s mother). Which helps illuminate the important roles women played in the foundation of the early Christian church and the spread of Christianity; from its origins as an obscure messianic, apocalyptic Jewish sect, to it becoming the worldwide, multi-denominational, phenomenon we know today. This history can be forgotten. This book provides refreshing and illuminating insights into this period. 

An intriguing read for those interested in ancient and / or Christian history. 

Title: Band of angels:the forgotten world of early Christian women
Author: Kate Cooper
Publisher: Atlantic Books
Date: 2013
ISBN: 9781848873285

11 April, 2015

Unstill life : a daughter's memoir of art and love in the age of abstraction by Gabrielle Selz [Claire S, Central]

This fascinating biography of Gabrielle's larger than life father Peter Selz gives us a sneak peek into the  1960's New York art world in the heyday of abstract expressionism.

Peter Selz, now 94 years old, was an art historian, museum director, professor emeritus and author. In 1958, soon after Gabrielle was born he became chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (MOMA).
He was a charismatic man who married 5 times. At the core of this story is the relationship he still maintained with Gabrielle's mother, the writer Thalia Selz, over 40 years.

Gabrielle's frank account of her childhood strips away much of the perceived glamour of the art world. Constantly having to adjust to major disruptions in her life, she gains insight to the world of adults at an early age.
Gallery openings, parties, alcohol, affairs, suicides and the most celebrated artists of the time were all part of her world.

When her father leaves MOMA to direct a museum in California she moves with her mother to the utopian, experimental artist community Westbeth in bohemian Greenwich Village. This is an interesting chapter. Three people committed suicide there, one of them being the photographer Diane Arbus. The other half of her time she spends in Berkeley with her father who is now embracing the hippy culture - long hair, protests and tie-dyed clothing.

Gabrielle doesn't skip the painful memories. A motorcycle accident where she has to learn to walk again and being 'dumped' in a children's home in Germany for 2 months when her and her sister were preschool ages and told her parents would only be gone for a day.
Despite her fathers narcissicism she doesn't seem to harbour any anger and goes on to complete an art history degree and become a successful writer.
It's a life that's provided her with a wealth of experience and a story that's never boring.
This book was awarded The 2015 Best Memoir from the American Society of Journalists and Authors.

Title: Unstill life : a daughter's memoir of art and love in the age of abstraction
Author: Gabrielle Selz
Publisher: New York: W.W.Norton & Company
Date: 2014
ISBN: 9780393239171

09 April, 2015

The Elephant’s Journey by José Saramago [Claire G, Grey Lynn]

I picked up The Elephant’s Journey because it looked like a pleasant diversion for someone I knew: well written (surely! Its author had won the Nobel Prize for Literature) but light and not too long. The subject – a gift that the King of Portugal bestowed on Archduke Maximilian of Austria in 1551 – appeared safe and unlikely to increase stress levels, a consideration for the person I had in mind.

I’m glad I read it before passing it on, as otherwise I’d have missed a little beauty. The king’s gift is an elephant called Solomon and his keeper, Subhro. A
s they make their way from Lisbon to Vienna by road and boat, a delightful tale emerges.

One newspaper reviewer, whose own novel was about another large land mammal from hot places, seemed disappointed that Saramago’s book (a) deviated from the True Story of this particular elephant and (b) failed to offer significant insights into the nature and behaviour of the species in general. I thought he rather missed the point. 

In The Elephant’s Journey, moments that in another writer’s hands might be saccharine are instead very funny, thanks to the narrator’s sly and wry commentary. There’s a sense that what we’re reading is a timeless reflection on life, without self-importance or too much earnestness. 

The style of the writing, which is translated from Portuguese, is intriguing. Sentences are long with multiple clauses that are divided by commas, and the paragraphs are also long. There are no capital letters for proper nouns. These features seem in keeping with the slow, meandering progress of the elephant and his entourage, and with the egalitarian sympathies of the narrator, but I’ve read that they are typical of Saramago.

Don’t worry that the novel itself is ponderous; it isn’t. If you’re like me you’ll read it quickly, laugh a little and feel unexpectedly enriched.

Title: The Elephant’s Journey (also available as an ebook)
Author: José Saramago

Translator: Margaret Jull Costa
Published: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston
Date: 2010
ISBN: 9780547352589

08 April, 2015

Midnight Pirates by Ally Kennen [Hamish L, Avondale]

“Keep your fins out of my face and don’t block my breathing tube this time or your mermaid career is dead.”

It’s a tough life being a performing mermaid at MYRMAID WYRLD, Cornwall’s premier aquatic attraction, but Miranda is a bona-fide mermaid. When her parents go to America, her and her siblings end up running their hotel, and have some strange visitors...

Ally Kennen’s writing is clever and witty, and her storytelling will keep you turning the pages! Great for older children.

Title: Midnight Pirates
Author: Ally Kennen
Publisher: Marion Lloyd
Published: 2013
ISBN: 9781407129884

07 April, 2015

The Faithful Couple by A.D. Miller [Sue W Central]

Powerful writing does not require a plot driven narrative to entice you forward to the next episodic stepping stone. Its beauty and strength lies in your immediate engagement in the characters you meet.

There is something slightly voyeuristic, but pleasurable I hasten to add, in sitting on the author's shoulder and watching and absorbing the relationship between characters, how  they grow, their secret hurts nursed over the years and loyalties earned and tested. Sometimes as relationships chalk up years each character maturing and adapting to their environment, they discover there are certain unspoken factors that ensure the relationship is successful and friendship endures. This novel examines the trajectory of a friendship between two males meeting in their early twenties through to their mid forties. It begins with the intoxicating instant connection, two people deeply in tune with one another, same humour, same underlying slight cynicism and delight in life's absurdities.

This is where we begin our journey and travel the following couple of decades with the friends, the nuances of their friendship, the insights each character has about their friendship as they mature with the passing years. To say more would risk spoiling what is a beautiful read. I think fans of Ian McEwan, or Paul Auster will enjoy this novel.

Title: The Faithful Couple
Author: A.D. Miller
Publisher: London, Little, Brown 2015
ISBN: 9781408705902

06 April, 2015

The treasure of Rennes-le-Château : a mystery solved by Bill Putnam & John Edwin Wood [Clare, Massey Library]

In a small village in France, called Rennes-le-Chateau, a mystery unfolded that would capture the public imagination for many years to come. A quiet priest, Father Berenger Sauniere, moved to the ancient hilltop town and proceeded to renovate the church of Saint Mary Magdalene.

There had been human occupation on the small, rocky hilltop for centuries, and in neolithic, Roman and Visigoth times there may have been as many as 30,000 people living in the town and scattered nearby.The church itself shows evidence of having been rebuilt many times, and has earlier features intermingled with more modern architecture.

It was the cost of the renovations and other buildings which the priest financed, which led to speculation about where a poor country priest found the money to undertake such extensive work. Over time, he renovated the church and commissioned new artworks, and built a separate tower nearby which he furnished as a library, as well as a very comfortable villa which he intended to be a retreat for retired priests.

During the early renovations he was seen to recover parchments which had been hidden inside two ancient stone pillars. Locals believed that he had found maps which disclosed the location of a hidden treasure. Many wondered if this was the fabled treasure of Blanche of Castile who had supposedly hidden it in the area. Or whether the Cathars had hidden their wealth before being persecuted by the French king. Still others believed that he had found the marriage certificate of Jesus and Mary Magdalene and the genealogy showing their line of descendants.

He made several trips to Rome and other countries, and there were rumours of the involvement of the Priory of Sion and the Vatican. If he did indeed discover such a document, the price of his silence may have enabled the priest to finance his buildings. It was said that on his deathbed he made his confession to another local priest, who appeared ashen-faced after the confession, and became morose and depressed thereafter.

Of course, the legend has continued into the twenty-first century with the bestselling books of Dan Brown, the Da Vinci Code. I happened to be in London some years ago at the Temple church, when the films with Tom Hanks were being made, and I recall people wandering about with the books, and knocking on stone walls, and peering at inscriptions.

Whether or Father Sauniere found an earthly or explosively religious treasure may never be known, but it is certain that he got fabulous sums of money from somewhere, and the buildings he erected stand as a testimony to his sudden wealth. This is a good read with plenty of historical background and information from descendants of those who took part in the events. An enduring and a puzzling mystery.

Title: The treasure of Rennes-le-Chateau
Authors: Bill Putnam and John Edwin Wood
ISBN: 0750930810
Published: 2003
Publisher: Stroud: Sutton

02 April, 2015

Remembrance of things Paris - Sixty years of writing from Gourmet, by Ruth Reichl [Ana, Central Library]

Remembrance of things Paris is a compilation of essays by food writers for Gourmet magazine in the first half of the twenty century. Ruth Reichl is the magazine's editor and writes the introduction. The writers present us with a collection of vignettes depicting the culinary life of Paris: the bistros, the chocolateries, the restaurants. One of the chapters describes Maxime's where one has to wear a tie, but an "elegant turtleneck" will be tolerated. It tells us about all the kings and queens, princes, major personalities and actors who frequented it. And there are many.

Towards the end of the book there is a section entitled Americans in Paris and the first chapter is A Memory of Alice B. Toklas, written by Naomi Barry. Alice B. Toklas was the long life companion and secretary of Gertrude Stein. Although it doesn't say this in the book, it's well known that Alice Toklas wrote The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook after Gertrude Stein's death. The book is a mixture of their life together, recipes and thoughts about French cuisine. It became famous however, because a friend of William S. Burroughs gave her a recipe which she included in her book: Hashish Fudge. She is known to have said on the radio that the snack "might provide an entertaining refreshment for a ladies Bridge Club", and then proceeded to read the recipe on air.

In Remembrance of Things Paris, Naomi Barry who has been invited to their house for lunch recounts how Alice B. gets up early and goes to lengths to get a trout which she cooks in a "sauce vert". Alice and Gertrude she says, lived in a house full of antiques, Ming porcelain and Renaissance furniture and had 37 Picassos in their dining room (Picasso was their friend).

Another American writer is Michael Lewis, whose chapter is called An Insincere Cassoulet. He says that Paris is a city of vulgarians who treat every one and each other with utter contempt, and that the whole point of living in Paris is to acquire a veneer of sophistication to impress others with your worldliness. As soon as this is accomplished, you leave.

If you want an entertaining book with anecdotes of Paris and recipes of French food, this is the book for you.

Title: Remembrance of things Paris - Sixty years of writing Gourmet 
Author: Ruth Reichl (editor)
ISBN: 9780812971934
Publisher: Modern Library
Published: 2005

01 April, 2015

The Maxwell sisters by Loretta Hill [Kathy, Collections Development]

Last year I revisited one of my favourite areas in Australia, the Northern Victorian wine country. When I saw this book was about a family of winemakers, happy memories of my trip prompted me to choose it to read.

The story is set in a different area, Margaret River, but my imagination had me visualising the Maxwell’s winery as a sort-of collage of all the wineries I’ve visited in Australia and New Zealand.

Loretta Hill writes really good descriptions of the Australian countryside and I have enjoyed her earlier titles set in the mining areas of Western Australia.

The youngest of winemaker John Maxwell’s three daughters is getting married and plans to hold the ceremony at the family vineyard. She wants to use a fire-damaged building on the property and calls in relatives and friends to help restore it in time for the big day. The three sisters used to be close but have fallen out over the years and no longer tell each other everything. As wedding preparations go on, bit by bit the secrets start to come out.

The characters reflect those of many families and their extended circle of friends, with a wide range of personalities. It’s easy to read with plenty of romance and humour but also some well thought out coverage of the issues the family members face. I particularly liked the author’s explanation of the message she wanted to give in this book –how relationships can change over the years and at all stages of life.

As a result of reading this book my travel bucket list has just had another entry added - Margaret River, Western Australia!

Title: The Maxwell sisters
Author: Loretta Hill
ISBN: 9780857984296
Published: 2015
Publisher: Random House