Friday 29 March 2013

Book Review: SILVER ORPHAN by Martine Lacombe

Silver Orphan

Title: Silver Orphan
Author: Martine Lacombe
Publisher: Five Leaf Clover
Read: March 28-29, 2013

Synopsis (Goodreads):

An endearing tale of unlikely friendship and compassion between two diametrically opposed individuals - a vibrant young woman and an elderly frail man - Silver Orphan illustrates that giving of yourself reaps untold benefits.

The subject matter covered in Silver Orphan is disturbing from a collective point of view. How we treat our elders, how we discard them - both in life and death - mirrors how we fare as a society. The old will soon outnumber the young - a chilling prospect treated with compassion in Silver Orphan. Interwoven in the stark reality of our superficial ethos is a story of love, redemption, and compassion. Silver Orphan should be included in ethics class curricula nationwide. A chance encounter; an unusual request; two lives inexorably transformed.

When self-absorbed Brooke Blake uncharacteristically sheds her narcissistic armor, she discovers that the hand we lend may pave the way to our own redemption. Silver Orphan is a perplexing hall of mirrors where every image reflects agonizing - though liberating - secrets.

My thoughts: 

When Brooke Blake, a young pharmaceutical sales rep with a general loathing for humanity at large, sees an elderly man stranded on the side of the road trying to hitch a ride, it touches some deep forgotten thread of compassion and humanity inside her and compels her to give the stranger a lift. Out of the chance encounter develops an unlikely friendship. For the following eight months, Brooke regularly visits 86-year-old Frank Moretti to take him to the supermarket and help him with his shopping. In return, Frank teaches her about the simple pleasures in life, such as Twinkies and the famous Philly Cheesesteak. Brooke, who is as hard on herself as she is on other people and affords herself few pleasures, is slowly transformed by Frank’s friendship, discovering the joys of really caring for someone other than herself.

One day Brooke receives a phone call from the hospital – Frank has collapsed in the street and has passed away. There is no information about any next of kin, with Brooke’s phone number the only contact details Frank had on his person. Determined to give Frank the send-off he deserves, Brooke sets out to track down some information about Frank’s past in the hope of finding family members. Her investigations – albeit against her better judgment - will lead her on a road to discovery about her friend’s life she had never expected…

I received a Galley copy of Silver Orphan directly from the author in exchange for an honest review. I admit that the title of “a social novel” initially conjured visions of something dry and lecturing, which to my pleasant surprise this novel was not. Despite Brooke being painted in a very unfavourable light in the opening chapters, I did enjoy her somewhat acerbic humour, which elicited many chuckles. At times this humour was self-deprecating, but quite often it provided comical musings about some of the frustrating or perplexing moments in life most of us can relate to.

“I nod in acceptance of the diversion and sadly note that I most certainly committed this useless trivia to memory, leaving less room for useful knowledge. Such are the vagaries of the mind.”


“If I were on a television show, the place would fall silent and the toothless locals would all turn toward me, threatening me with pickaxes and slinging catfish in my direction. This being real life, nobody gives me the time of day.”

The Brooke who is quoted as saying: “ I really don’t like people. I tolerate a few other human beings, but as a whole, I find the whole human race to be rather disgusting”, turns into a completely different person when she is around Frank, although she would never admit to any altruistic motives. The slowly developing friendship between these two very different people is heartwarming and inspires hope.

And of course I loved Frank – the intrepid octogenarian whose past is gradually being revealed in alternating chapters written in first person narrative from a younger Frank’s perspective. Interspersed with many interesting facts about Philadelphia during the Great Depression and the fate of Italian immigrants during WW2, Frank’s life story lends another very humane aspect to the novel. As a health professional I often witness the careless dismissal of our elderly, without giving credit to the rich lives they have led. I applaud Martine Lacombe to highlight this scourge of our time and society with this heartwarming story of friendship and redemption.

My only criticism would be the way young Brooke initially reacts to Frank’s death, which seems out of character even in her most obnoxious moments. A girl who has taken the time to ferry her elderly friend around town on a regular basis for eight months, and seems generally concerned about his welfare, would certainly have felt some sadness over his passing – I get that the author wanted to paint Brooke in an unfavourable light to highlight her growth as a person throughout the novel – however, at that point in the story she had already been touched and transformed to some degree by the relationship.

All in all I derived a lot of pleasure from reading this novel and it validated a lot of encounters I personally had with elderly people, both in my professional and in my private life. It is a shame that our elders aren’t more respected in our society, as we have so much to learn from them. Silver Orphan is about respect, friendship and growth. I closed the book with a feeling of hope for a better world.

I applaud the author for tackling this difficult subject and believe she has done it justice and presented it in a format which provided both entertainment value as well as food for thought. I look forward to reading more from this promising young author in the future.

Thursday 28 March 2013

Book Review: BÖSER WOLF by Nele Neuhaus

Böser Wolf (Bodenstein & Kirchhoff, #6)

Title: Böser Wolf
Author: Nele Neuhaus
Publisher: Ullstein
Read: March 24-28, 2013

Synopsis (Goodreads):

An einem heißen Tag im Juli wird die Leiche einer 16-Jährigen aus dem Main bei Eddersheim geborgen. Sie wurde misshandelt und ermordet, und niemand vermisst sie. Auch nach Wochen hat das K 11 keinen Hinweis auf ihre Identität. Die Spuren führen zu einem Kinderdorf im Taunus und zu einer Fernsehmoderatorin, die bei ihren Recherchen den falschen Leuten zu nahe gekommen ist. Pia Kirchhoff und Oliver von Bodenstein graben tiefer und stoßen inmitten gepflegter Bürgerlichkeit auf einen Abgrund an Bösartigkeit und Brutalität. Und dann wird der Fall persönlich.

My thoughts:

In her latest novel “Böser Wolf”, Nele Neuhaus goes one step further than in her five previous novels and lets her main characters investigate a crime which transcends local boundaries and uncovers a large conspiracy so evil that it will sicken and disturb most readers when thinking about these crimes happening to real people, in real life.

Several threads start in the first part of the book:

Pia Kirchhoff has settled into a comfortable life with her new partner Christoph, trying to get used to looking after a small child when his granddaughter Lilly comes for an extended visit from Australia. With Oliver von Bodenstein away on a trip, she is the first person on call when the mutilated body of a teenage girl is found floating in the Main. Despite extensive investigations into the identity of the girl, the team are unable to make real progress in the case, as nobody even seems to be missing the teenager. An autopsy reveals a horrific history of old injuries pointing to years of unspeakable abuse and captivity.

In the meantime Hanna Herrmann, a famous TV talkshow host, is about to contact a person who could potentially provide her with the biggest story of her career. After recent complaints about her and her show, which centres around heartbreak and personal disaster, often at the expense of the victims themselves, Hanna really needs this break to keep her show on air. But Hanna may have underestimated the lengths other people may go to to keep her from finding out the truth – brutally attacked, raped and left for dead she barely escapes with her life with no memory of how she got into this situation.

Emma, eight months pregnant with her second child, is worried about her five year old daughter, whose violent outbursts and strange behaviour seem too extreme to be the normal temper tantrums and mood swings of a child her age. On top of that, her husband has been acting cold and remote and Emma is sure that he is having an affair. At a school reunion Emma bumps into her old friend Pia Kirchhoff, and the two women reconnect again after many years.

In Neuhaus’ typical style, all these separate threads ultimately connect and culminate in a terrifying finale involving all characters, this time becoming very close and personal to Pia Kirchhoff’s own life.

Again I was totally captivated by the plot and found it hard to put the book down until all was revealed. Personally, I love the way Neuhaus introduces many separate storylines and characters, which make reading the novel an exciting journey and introduce many different interesting elements and angles. However, by centring the novel around a topic which elicits very strong emotions in most people, the violent and sexual crimes against children, I feel that Neuhaus paid the price of making the story a bit too black and white. In previous novels there were always several sides to the contemporary topic explored, with the varying emotional responses of supporting characters lending the story depth and credibility. A difficult topic such as explored in Böser Wolf creates many “no-go” zones, often at the expense of character development. I found that this led to several unanswered questions as to the motives and means of the main perpetrators in the novel, as well as a conspiracy almost too large to be believable for the setting.

However, Neuhaus’ passion about exposing the subject to the wider public is evident, and she certainly manages to elicit strong emotions through uncovering the horrible-beyond-words aspects of the crimes. I shudder to think of the emotional toll researching such a topic must take, and take my hat off to the author for being brave enough to tackle such a horrific task. Living quite a sheltered life in our quiet corner of the world here, I was sickened to think about organised crime against children – an unspeakable horror. In that regard Neuhaus’ latest thriller serves two purposes: the entertainment value of an intelligent, well-written murder-mystery combined with raising awareness of horrific crimes committed in our own environment. Since awareness is the first step to change, and packaging it in an approachable format is a great way to get the message out, I hope that the awareness Neuhaus raises with her novel will indeed work towards making a difference.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this novel and found it hard to put down. Kirchhoff and von Bodenstein have become so familiar over the course of the series that I am eager to find out what the future holds for them, and look forward to Neuhaus’ next book in the series!

Wednesday 27 March 2013

Audiobook Review: THE GIRL YOU LEFT BEHIND by Jojo Moyes

The Girl You Left Behind

Title: The Girl You Left Behind
Author: Jojo Moyes
Narrators: Clare Corbett & Penny Rawlins
Publisher (audiobook version): Clipper Audiobooks

Read: March 08 - 27, 2013

Synopsis (Goodreads):

In 1916 French artist Edouard Lefevre leaves his wife Sophie to fight at the Front. When her town falls into German hands, his portrait of Sophie stirs the heart of the local Kommandant and causes her to risk everything - her family, reputation and life - in the hope of seeing her true love one last time.

Nearly a century later and Sophie's portrait is given to Liv by her young husband shortly before his sudden death. Its beauty speaks of their short life together, but when the painting's dark and passion-torn history is revealed, Liv discovers that the first spark of love she has felt since she lost him is threatened...

In The Girl You Left Behind two young women, separated by a century, are united in their determination to fight for the thing they love most - whatever the cost.

My thoughts:

Jojo Moyes’ The Girl You Left Behind is a dual time novel spanning almost 100 years, partly set in France during WW1 and partly in 21st century London. 

France, 1916: with their husbands fighting away at the front, Sophie LeFèvre and her sister Hélène are running their family’s bar and restaurant, Le Coq Rouche, despite dwindling supplies and the ever increasing oppression of their German occupiers. When the German army requisitions their hotel to have the soldiers’ meals prepared there, it puts the two women in a difficult position – on one hand they are unable to deny their occupiers, on the other they can ill afford to be seen as collaborators and traitors in their own village for feeding and housing the enemy. Things go from bad to worse when a German kommandant spots a portrait Sophie’s husband Eduard painted of his wife when they first fell in love. Initially drawn by the brushwork, the attraction soon threatens to become more personal, putting Sophie in a very dangerous situation.

London, 2006: Olivia “Liv” Halston, still struggling to come to terms with her husband David’s sudden death four years ago, has no knowledge of the history of the painting, “The Girl You Left Behind”, which David purchased for her on their honeymoon in Spain almost a decade earlier. Over the years, the painting has become a source of great solace for her, and she has formed a kind of bond with the woman the picture portrays. When Liv allows herself to fall in love with a man she met in a bar one night, she has little idea of the far reaching effects the encounter will have on her whole life. Through a bizarre coincidence she is suddenly caught up in a bitter battle over the true ownership of the painting, not only threatening her memory of happy times with her husband, but also her new relationship.

Moyes throws up some interesting premises with her novel – the power of art to capture and convey events in history for generations to come, and the true meaning of ownership. In one scene Liv, who sees herself as the rightful owner and guardian of the painting, points out a controversial issue: if all items which have been the spoils of war were to be re-possessed, then most famous historical artworks would be the centre of bitter court battles. Indeed, where would we stop – by relinquishing whole towns, cities, countries which have been occupied and taken from their previous owners? How can it be fairly determined what really constitutes rightful ownership? It did make me think, and I could relate to Liv’s plight. Although I must admit that I would have liked Liv to have a deeper connection to the painting rather than a random purchase – as it was, I could not fully comprehend her willingness to sacrifice everything for the painting, her house, her new love, her reputation.

As far as reading pleasure goes, I was totally captivated by the narrative of Sophie’s story. Having listened to the audiobook version of the novel, I take my hat off to the two narrators who did an outstanding job of bringing the characters to life. Especially Sophie’s life story was told with such feeling that I often had tears in my eyes as her fate unfolded. On that subject, I must admit that I enjoyed the historical parts of the story much more than the contemporary chapters, which at times dragged just a little – or maybe I was just so eager to find out more about Sophie’s fate that I had little patience for Liv’s emotional crises One big gripe I had with Liv’s story was that Moyes heavily relies on coincidence to unfold the main plotline, which makes parts of the story a bit far fetched. However, as my kids always remind me when I am too picky, this is fiction after all, and that aside I certainly enjoyed the ride. The Girl You Left Behind cements Moyes as an author I want to read more of in the future.

I read this book as part of my 2013 Audiobook Challenge


Saturday 23 March 2013

Book Review: THE RAILWAYMAN'S WIFE by Ashley Hay

The Railwayman's Wife

Title: The Railwayman's Wife
Author: Ashley Hay
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Read: March 16 - 23, 2013

Synopsis (Goodreads):

In a small town on the land's edge, in the strange space at a war's end, a widow, a poet and a doctor each try to find their own peace, and their own new story.

In Thirroul, in 1948, people chase their dreams through the books in the railway's library. Anikka Lachlan searches for solace after her life is destroyed by a single random act. Roy McKinnon, who found poetry in the mess of war, has lost his words and his hope. Frank McKinnon is trapped by the guilt of those his treatment and care failed on their first day of freedom. All three struggle with the same question: how now to be alive.

Written in clear, shining prose and with an eloquent understanding of the human heart, The Railwayman's Wife explores the power of beginnings and endings, and how hard it can be sometimes to tell them apart. It's a story of life, loss and what comes after; of connection and separation, longing and acceptance. Most of all, it celebrates love in all its forms, and the beauty of discovering that loving someone can be as extraordinary as being loved yourself.

A story that will break your heart with hope.

My thoughts:

In Thirroul in 1948 the sound of the railway is a steady presence in Annika Lachlan’s life. Then one day the trains don’t run – there has been an accident further up the line, Annika is told, and her husband Mac’s life has been lost. Suddenly widowed and alone with her eleven year old daughter Bella, Ani is forced to take a job as librarian in the small town’s library.

Enveloped in her grief but forced out of solitude by her new job, Ani comes into contact with other hurt souls. Roy McKinnon, a poet, whose wartime experiences have left him unable to write about the beauty he sees all around him. Doctor Frank Draper, recently returned from Germany where he has witnessed unspeakable horrors after the liberation of the concentration camps, and who blames himself for being unable to prevent the deaths of many patients in his care. And Iris McKinnon, who has waited years for her sweetheart to return from the war, only to find him scarred and battered, a changed man.

As these troubled people meet, they find solace in each other’s company as they try to rebuild their lives and come to term with their individual grief.

Hay’s beautiful prose takes the reader on a heartbreaking journey of discovery of loss and grief and the way different people deal with tragedy. As Annika progresses through the different stages of sudden widowhood – the shock, the anger, the fear and the bottomless sorrow – her job in the town’s library brings her into contact with other people scarred by tragedy. Slowly she manages to bring joy back into her life, but her husband’s death remains an omnipresent void in her life.

“The year I’ve had, Dr Draper, here, with my daughter, making sense of this strange new world. I’ve lost my husband. I have this job. I wake up in my room, in my house. And yet everything, everything is different.”

It took me quite a long time to connect with the characters in this book, but once I did I was quickly drawn into the story and its emotional landscape. The blurb talks about hope, and yet hope was a fleeting thing for me, like sunshine only briefly breaking through the clouds. It left me wondering if the people in the story could ever be whole again, especially after closing the last page. At what stage is the damage too great to ever being able to move on, to start anew?

Anyone who has ever lost a loved one will be able to relate to some of the emotions described in this story. The Railwayman’s Wife is not a cheerful book but one which invites introspection and reflection. It also skilfully draws the reader’s attention to the emotional legacy of war, and its repercussions long after it is over, and many continents away from the battlefields. With her poetic prose, Hay brings to life the atmosphere of a small coastal town in post-war Australia and its people. 

Thank you to the publisher Allen & Unwin for supplying me with a free copy of this novel. The thoughts expressed in this review are strictly my own.

This book forms part of my 2013 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Sunday 10 March 2013

Book Review: FRACTURED by Dawn Barker


Title: Fractured
Author: Dawn Barker
Publisher: Hachette Australia
Read: March 05 - 08, 2013

Synopsis (Goodreads):

An unforgettable novel that brings to life a new mother's worst fears.

Tony is worried. His wife, Anna, isn't coping with their newborn. Anna had wanted a child so badly and, when Jack was born, they were both so happy. They'd come home from the hospital a family. Was it really only six weeks ago?

But Anna hasn't been herself since. One moment she's crying, the next she seems almost too positive. It must be normal with a baby, Tony thought; she's just adjusting. He had been busy at work. It would sort itself out. But now Anna and Jack are missing. And Tony realises that something is really wrong...

What happens to this family will break your heart and leave you breathless.

My thoughts:

Fractured is an insightful portrayal of mental illness and its devastating effects on a young Australian family.

After desperately trying for a baby for a long time, Anna and Tony finally welcome their firstborn son Jack into the world. But for Anna both the birth and the weeks following are not as she had expected. Jack is a fretful baby who wakes every two hours, and with Tony working long days Anna is soon in a state of total exhaustion. And though Tony is worried about his wife, he puts her growing lethargy, weight loss and mood swings down to adjusting to having a new baby in the house. It is not until Anna and Jack disappear one morning that Tony realises that something is very badly wrong ….

Barker, who is a psychiatrist, offers the reader insights into the devastating effects of postnatal depression, drawing on the background knowledge and experience of a health professional who has been exposed both to patients with the disease as well as the clinical environment. Her portrayal of Anna as she goes through various stages of trying to adjust to being a mother, and her gradual unravelling, is both touching and shocking. The story sends an important message to readers – that mental illness is a medical condition just like other diseases, such as cancer, and not the “fault” of the sufferer. Through Anna, whose actions may repel the reader, we get a glimpse into a world where logic and reason are no longer sufficient anchors to make people operate within the moral and ethical frameworks of humankind. Instead, the illness may compel sufferers to act in an irrational manner which is totally out of character for the person.

I thought that the scenes of Anna trying to come to terms with not only her ever growing fatigue and the demands of her newborn, but also her own feelings of powerlessness and estrangement from her baby were brilliantly described. Every new mother will identify to some extent to Anna’s emotional rollercoaster ride as she tries so very hard to be a good mother to her son. Offering Tony’s perspective highlights the differences in the new parenting experience and the adjustments required by the new parents.

Revealing most details of the novel’s central events early in the book perhaps gave too much away too soon, and I would have liked a bit more mystery to keep me truly engaged with all the characters. However, supporting the story with the perspectives of both Anna’s and Tony’s family members and friends added depth to the story and explored the effects of Anna’s illness on those closest to her, rippling out into the wider community. One aspect which could have been further explored was the public reaction to the events unfolding in the story, and its impact on family members – although the internal conflicts and divided loyalties were portrayed very well.

Barker has done an excellent job in exploring the tragic effects of postnatal depression, at a time in a woman’s life which is supposed to be the fulfilment of her womanhood. Written with compassion, understanding and sensitivity, this novel will touch your heart and sow the seeds for a better understanding of mental illness within the community. As other reviews have mentioned, this novel would offer many discussion points for bookclubs and further help to de-mystify mental illness.

Thank you to Hachette Australia and the Reading Room for providing me with a free copy of this novel. The views expressed in this review are strictly my own.

I read this novel as part of my 2013 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

I would be happy to "share the joy" and pass my copy of this novel on to another reader for review - if you are interested please leave a comment below. 

Saturday 9 March 2013

Audiobook Review: THE WOMAN IN BLACK by Susan Hill

The Woman in Black: A Ghost Story

Title: The Woman in Black
Author: Susan Hill; narrator Ralph Cosham
Publisher: Blackstone Audiobooks
Read: March 05 - 07, 2013

Synopsis (Goodreads): 

What true readers do not yearn, somewhere in the recesses of their hearts, for a literate, first-class thriller--one that chills the body but warms the soul with plot, perception, and language at once astute and vivid? In other words, a ghost story written by Jane Austen? Susan Hill's remarkable Woman in Black comes as close as our era can provide. Set on the obligatory English moor, the story's hero is Arthur Kipps, an up-and-coming young solicitor who has come from London to attend the funeral and settle the affairs of Mrs. Alice Drablow of Eel Marsh House. The routine formalities he anticipates give way to a tumble of events and secrets more sinister and terrifying than any nightmare: the rocking chair in the deserted nursery, the eerie sound of a pony and trap, a child's scream in the fog, and most dreadfully--and for Kipps most tragically--the Woman in Black.

My thoughts: 

Arthur Kipps, a young solicitor from London, is sent to Crythin Gifford, a small remote market town on the east coast of England, to present his law firm at the funeral of their client, the elderly recluse Mrs Alice Drablow. For the last few decades, Mrs Drablow has lived on her own in the secluded building of Eel Marsh House, an old mansion surrounded by marshes and cut off from the mainland at high tide. As soon as Arthur arrives in the village, he becomes aware of the villagers’ fear of the old house and their reluctance to discuss anything to do with the deceased Mrs Drablow.

In an effort to sort out the late widow’s paperwork, Arthur travels to Eel Marsh House and spends a few terrifying nights in the old mansion, haunted by the spectre of a woman in black and noises of a young child perishing in the marshes at night. Then there is the locked room in the house, which no key can open, but from which strange noises permeate at night. Young Arthur is about to experience the most terrifying days and nights of his life ….

The Woman in Black, penned in the 1980’s, is written in the style of a traditional gothic novel, using old-fashioned prose and featuring characters who could be straight out of a Jane Austen novel. I found the style to be quaint, but also slightly priggish in places, not endearing me much to the story’s central character Arthur Kipps, who I had trouble visualising as the young carefree man he is initially portrayed as. This image was not aided by the voice of the audiobook narrator, who did little to liven up Arthur’s character.

Though descriptive and atmospheric, which does set an eerie background, nothing much actually happens in the book, and it is very slow to start. And as soon as things got interesting, the novel was almost in its last pages and was resolved very quickly, before I had time to get really spooked. Which is a shame, because Susan Hill really knows how to set the scene, and the haunted Eel Marsh House is a truly terrifying locality in which to set a ghost story. I loved the premise of the story, and its ultimate conclusion, but was a bit disappointed in the execution of the novel, which wasted a lot of time (in my opinion) on meaningless details (such as Arthur’s constant introspections and predictions for something more to come, of which I am not a fan). I was also puzzled as to the era the novel was meant to take place in – on one hand the language is reminiscent of Victorian England and there is talk of a pony and trap, yet Arthur mentions electricity and motorcars, and there is no historical context to place the story in time.

All in all, as far as spooking me and giving me goosebumps, the book did not quite do it for me, despite listening to it whilst driving along a lonely dark country road in the middle of the night on my own under a new moon. I tried to be scared, but instead got annoyed with Arthur’s constant analysing of his own feelings – the ghostly apparitions themselves featured only very briefly. However, there were moments where I could visualise the old mansion and experience a slight shiver of apprehension, though more intrigue then actual fear. The story did have potential to be truly terrifying, but needed a bit more sparkle in its main character and a few more appearances of the ghostly presences – and less detail of Arthur’s rather mundane activities.  Which made it an ok read, but not a memorable one for me.

I read this book as part of my 2013 Audiobook Challenge.

Sunday 3 March 2013

Book Review: THE RAINBOW TROOPS by Andrea Hirata

The Rainbow Troops

Title: The Rainbow Troops
Author: Andrea Hirata
Publisher: Random House Asutralia
Read: February 27 - March 03, 2013

Synopsis (Goodreads):

Ikal is a student at Muhammadiyah Elementary, on the Indonesian island of Belitong, where graduating from sixth grade is considered a major achievement. His school is under constant threat of closure. In fact, Ikal and his friends - a group called The Rainbow Troops - face threats from every angle: pessimistic, corrupt government officials; greedy corporations hardly distinguishable from the colonialism they've replaced; deepening poverty and crumbling infrastructure; and their own faltering self-confidence. But in the form of two extraordinary teachers, they also have hope, and Ikal's education is an uplifting one, in and out of the classroom.

You will cheer for Ikal and his friends as they defy the town's powerful tin miners. Meet his first love - a hand with half-moon fingernails that passes him the chalk his teacher sent him to buy. You will roar in support of Lintang, the class's barefoot maths genius, as he bests the rich company children in an academic challenge.

First published in Indonesia, The Rainbow Troops went on to sell over 5 million copies. Now it is set to captivate readers across the globe. This is classic story-telling: an engrossing depiction of a world not often encountered, bursting with charm and verve.

My thoughts:

Andrea Hirata’s Rainbow Troops is both humbling and inspiring, a reminder that there is a lot we take for granted in this country which is a privilege in other, less fortunate places – such as the right to free education. Written as homage to his elementary school teacher and classmates, the story’s honesty and humour will warm your heart and leave you with a feeling of hope.

Born the son of a miner on the tiny Indonesian island of Belitong, on the East coast of Sumatra, six-year-old Ikal knows the huge sacrifice his parents are making to send one of their children to school in the hope of giving him a better future. On his first day at Muhammadiyah Elementary School, a poor, ramshackle building on the verge of collapse, Ikal sighs in relief as the target number of students is reached to keep the school open, giving them a chance to receive an education. There are ten students all up, only one of them female, all of them children of the poorest families on the island – fishermen, miners labourers and farmers, who can’t even afford school uniforms or books for their children. Their teacher, fifteen-year old Bu Mus, has to work as a seamstress at night to be able to survive on the minimal teacher’s wage she receives.

Despite the island’s mineral riches, none of the wealth filters through to its native inhabitants. Originally a British and then a Dutch colony, the riches are held by the large PN Mining Company, whilst most of the island’s inhabitants live in poverty, each generation repeating the same cycle of illiteracy and hard labour without a way of escaping. Muhammadiyah Elementary School, constantly threatened by closure by government officials or mining magnates, is so ramshackle that it faces the daily threat of collapse. And yet it offers a brighter future for the children who are lucky enough to be able to attend, instead of being sent off as cheap labourers like so many other children of the island. The students themselves, calling themselves the Rainbow Troops, are a colourful group – from the genius mathematician Lintang, who cycles 40km to school across crocodile-infested swamps every day, to Mahar, who is drawn to the paranormal and island mythology.

Based on Hirata’s own childhood experiences, the story is written in simple, conversational prose and has almost fable-like qualities as the author mixes facts with mythological elements prevalent in island culture. It is the story of hope and quiet rebellion as the teachers and students fight for and celebrate one of the most basic human rights – that of education. With poverty still one of the major obstacles to education in many countries around the globe today, this is a story which should be read by everyone to make them aware of the privileges we so often take for granted.

Never originally intended for publication, The Rainbow Troops has now become Indonesia’s best-selling novel in history, which has been translated into 19 languages and adapted for film, television and musical.

This book forms part of my 2013 Monthly Keyword Challenge - keyword "rainbow"; and the 2013 Eclectic Reader Challenge - "translated fiction".

Saturday 2 March 2013

Audiobook Review: DARK PLACES by Gillian Flynn

Dark Places

Title: Dark Places
Author: Gillian Flynn
Publisher: Random House Audio (audio version)
Read: February 17 - March 2, 2013

Synopsis (Goodreads):

Libby Day was seven when her mother and two sisters were murdered in “The Satan Sacrifice of Kinnakee, Kansas.” As her family lay dying, little Libby fled their tiny farmhouse into the freezing January snow. She lost some fingers and toes, but she survived–and famously testified that her fifteen-year-old brother, Ben, was the killer. Twenty-five years later, Ben sits in prison, and troubled Libby lives off the dregs of a trust created by well-wishers who’ve long forgotten her.

The Kill Club is a macabre secret society obsessed with notorious crimes. When they locate Libby and pump her for details–proof they hope may free Ben–Libby hatches a plan to profit off her tragic history. For a fee, she’ll reconnect with the players from that night and report her findings to the club . . . and maybe she’ll admit her testimony wasn’t so solid after all.

As Libby’s search takes her from shabby Missouri strip clubs to abandoned Oklahoma tourist towns, the narrative flashes back to January 2, 1985. The events of that day are relayed through the eyes of Libby’s doomed family members–including Ben, a loner whose rage over his shiftless father and their failing farm have driven him into a disturbing friendship with the new girl in town. Piece by piece, the unimaginable truth emerges, and Libby finds herself right back where she started–on the run from a killer.

My thoughts:

It is not often that an author is able to create characters who become as familiar and true as old friends and whose fate still haunts you in your dreams (or nightmares) long after the last page has been turned. Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places is such a book, and despite having eagerly awaited the conclusion of the story and answers to all my questions, I am almost sad to part from a story which has held my undivided attention for so many hours.

Libby Day is the only female survivor of a horrible crime – the brutal slaughter of her mother and two sisters when Libby was only seven years old. Having escaped by hiding in a dark cupboard whilst the killings took place, Libby’s testimony about the events leading up to the murders and the things she heard on the night ultimately led to the arrest and prosecution of her older brother Ben, who is believed to have killed his family in a satanic ritual. Now in her early thirties, Libby’s life is still overshadowed by her past. She is constantly afraid of strangers, has no friends, is estranged from her only other remaining relatives and is unemployed, living off donations of benefactors who have heard about her fate. Since the night of the murders she has had no contact with Ben, who has been sentenced to life in prison.

But Libby’s life is about to change – the money from her beneficiary fund has been almost depleted, and she is confronted with the reality of having to get her life in order and find work. Still bitter and depressed, she receives a strange offer from a stranger, Lyle, who belongs to a society of civilians investigating the murders of her family, the Kill Club, convinced that Ben is innocent and that the real murderer is still at large. Lyle wants her to be guest of honour at the group’s next meeting, in exchange for a generous fee. Broke and desperate, Libby agrees. Confronted by group members, Libby is thrust back into the “dark place”, her memory of the night of the murders. Knowing that her testimony of having seen Ben commit the murders was coerced and not entirely true, she lets herself be persuaded to talk to persons who could hold the key to what really happened that night, such as her alcoholic wastrel father. And though Libby is still convinced that the right person has been charged with the murders, some of the new information coming to light may challenge everything she has believed all these years….

Flynn is a truly gifted writer, drawing the reader into the story from page one and never letting go whilst the plot slowly unravels to reveal a clever twist at the end. I never saw that one coming, although looking back there were clues which I somehow overlooked or disregarded as unimportant. By using four different narrators – with Libby’s being the only first person account – the day and night of the murders slowly unfold from several viewpoints. A warning for readers who do not like violence – some of the scenes are very graphic and truly horrible, and by cleverly setting the scene and creating a chilling atmosphere the author allows no escape from the horror of it all. One particular scene towards the end of the book made my stomach churn, and yet I could not tear myself away.

As in Flynn’s other books, evil constantly simmers under the surface and many circumstances converge to lead to the central twist at the end of the book. Exploring the darkest places of the human soul, the title is very apt, although in the book it refers to Libby’s memories of the fateful night. All characters are extremely well drawn. As the novel progresses, we see Libby grow from a bitter young woman to someone who takes matters into her own hands – which leaves the reader with a sense of hope despite the truly horrible themes underlying the story. As a mother, my heart went out to Patty, who is honest and hard-working, wanting only the best for her family, but having her whole life derailed by marrying the wrong man – and the spiral of poverty which sees her constantly battling to keep her family and farm afloat. The choices she must make are heartbreaking. The third person to have a voice is Ben, and even though I wanted to shake him at times it was hard not to feel empathy for this dysfunctional character as his unfortunate choices make his life rapidly spiral out of control.

I had the audiobook version of this novel, and rate it as one of the best narrations I have ever listened to. Using different narrators for the different perspectives in the book adds depth to the characters and sets a distinctively different tone for each separate part of the novel. Each one of the four narrators did an excellent job in giving characters their own voice, and I had no trouble following the conversations between several people (which can sometimes be an issue where there are lots of different characters to keep track of). I can strongly recommend this audiobook to anyone who wants hours of riveting storytelling – I had many occasions where I sat in the driveway in the dark after work, unable to switch off the recording before I had learnt just a little bit more.

Highly recommended for fans of clever atmospheric mysteries, although not for the faint hearted. I loved it – a definite five stars from me. It doesn’t get much better than this.

This book forms part of my 2013 Audiobook Challenge.


Friday 1 March 2013

Going back to the beginning - Nele Neuhaus' EINE UNBELIEBTE FRAU

Eine unbeliebte Frau (Bodenstein & Kirchhoff, #1)

Title: Eine unbeliebte Frau
Author: Nele Neuhaus
Publisher: Ullstein Buchverlage
Read: February 25 - 27, 2013

Synopsis (Goodreads):

Eine Ladung Schrot aus dem eigenen Jagdgewehr beschert dem Frankfurter Oberstaatsanwalt ein schnelles, wenn auch sehr hässliches Ende. Die schöne junge Frau, die tot am Fuß eines Aussichtsturms im Taunus liegt, ist viel zu unversehrt, um an den Folgen eines Sturzes gestorben zu sein. Kriminalhauptkommissar Oliver von Bodenstein und seine neue Kollegin Pia Kirchhoff sind sich einig: Der erste Todesfall war ein Selbstmord, der zweite jedoch ein Mord. Bald häufen sich sowohl die Motive als auch die Verdächtigen. Doch was hat den Staatsanwalt in den Tod getrieben?

My thoughts: 

I finally managed to track down an ebook version of Nele Neuhaus’ Eine unbeliebte Frau which was available in Australia and worked on my kindle! After reading (and loving) the fourth and fifth books in the series, I decided it was time to go back to see where it all began ….

Eine unbliebte Frau (an unloved woman) is the first in the Kirchhoff and von Bodenstein series and takes us right back to where Pia and Oliver first team up to solve a case together. Called to the apparent suicide of a young beautiful woman, the pair’s suspicion of foul play is soon confirmed. However, when trying to track down the woman’s murderer, the detective duo find out that dozens of people had a good motive of killing the victim – in fact, they can only find a couple of people who have anything good to say about her.

In typical Nele Neuhaus style, the case doesn’t remain a simple matter of solving a murder, but opens up into a complex conspiracy with a lot of sub-plots and secondary characters who are all somehow involved in the events leading up to the killing. Although there are a lot of characters and events to keep track of, the style works for me, building intrigue and keeping me interested to find out more.

With Pia Kirchhoff and Oliver von Bodenstein, Neuhaus has created a charismatic and likeable detective duo who are still going strong in the later books in the series. By giving her characters everyday problems, flaws and insecurities, the reader can relate to them as we catch small glimpses of their private lives and backgrounds. And yet these two people are not as flawed as many other protagonists in popular thriller series – their lives are almost ordinary, with family, friends, pets to take care of, cars to repair and housework to be done. And all of that in the setting of an ordinary town, where evil and crime can still simmer under the surface. Very refreshing!

I really enjoyed going back to the origins of this exciting new detective duo and now look forward to reading the next instalment in the series.