Category Archives: Book reviews

Athens (The House on Paradise Street)

Sofka Zinovieff’s first novel, published in 2012, is remarkable for its evocation of place.  The setting is the city of Athens, in two separate timeframes: 1942 and 2008. The protagonist, Antigone Perifanis, is a young woman when her country is riven by the second World War and then the terrible Greek Civil War; her decision to become a fighter in the resistance movement eventually leads to her exile from Greece. In 2008, she returns to Athens- to attend her son’s funeral, to meet his widow and children and to make her peace with the family that rejected her sixty years ago.

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Savannah (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil)

John Berendt’s brilliantly successful book about Savannah is a pure pleasure to read. Published in 1995, it rapidly became a best-seller – in spite of the fact that no-one was sure how to categorize it. On the back of my dog-eared Vintage paperback copy, it’s described, rather bizarrely, as ‘Travel / Crime.’ It’s certainly a masterwork of  ‘creative non-fiction’, that ambiguous-sounding term that describes non-fiction written with fictional techniques and creative flair.

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End of the Night Girl

Next month I will have the pleasure of introducing Amy Matthews, the award-winning Australian author of End of the Night Girl (Wakefield Press, 2011.) Amy works  at the University of Adelaide; she is a Research Fellow of the discipline of English and Creative Writing. As the Research Librarian for this group, I’ve had the opportunity to discuss Amy’s novel with her, and to sit in on some of her lectures, when she discussed post-modernism, creative non-fiction and the work of Michael Cunningham ( particularly The Hours, both text and film.)

Amy’s debut novel won the Adelaide Festival Award for Best Unpublished Manuscript in 2010; it was also nominated for the Australian / Vogel prize. The book was short-listed this year for the Dobbie Award, a prize that celebrates Australian women’s writing. It is currently short-listed for the Colin Roderick Award.

The novel is a powerful narrative about the long shadows cast by the Holocaust. It begins in late 20th-century Adelaide, where Molly, a young waitress, is struggling to make sense of her life (marked by dead-end jobs, unsatisfactory love affairs and a strained relationship with her family.) Molly’s secret life as a writer is a vitally important part of the story: she is consumed with the need to write about the Holocaust, taking the life of a Polish woman, Gienia, as her starting-point. Gradually, the character of Gienia comes to dominate Molly’s life – in a kind of sinister haunting that makes for deeply unsettling reading.

End of the Night Girl is a brilliant novel: highly recommended.

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The Suspicions of Mr Whicher

Kate Summerscale deservedly won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-fiction when her real-life story of ‘murder and intrigue in Victorian England’ was published in 2008. The book received excellent reviews and has since been made into a short film for television; I recommend it unreservedly to any of my friends who enjoy reading crime fiction. Summerscale writes with style and elegance, and her recreation of a particular time and place in nineteenth-century Britain is fascinating to read.

On June 30th 1860, the wealthy Kent family of Road Hill house awoke to discover that their youngest son, Saville, was missing. His mutilated body was found in the grounds, igniting one of Victorian England’s greatest scandals: the killer had to be someone inside the house.

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The Secret History / Donna Tartt

5 reasons to read this fabulous novel

The Story

Definitely a candidate for this month’s ‘secrets and lies’ theme, Donna Tartt’s first novel is an extraordinary psychological mystery. It’s a classic ‘whydunnit’, beginning with the events of the murder – we know the site of the crime, the name of the victim, his relationship to his killers. We even hear the voice of one of them in the Prologue. You can listen to the author reading this opening sequence here.

The Narrator

Richard Papen, a young Classics student at an elite college in Vermont, is the narrator of The Secret History. In spite of the terrible mistakes and ugly deeds that he commits in the name of friendship, he is a sympathetic and not unlikeable character. His voice is critical to Tartt’s story; she performs a delicate balancing act between eliciting and withholding sympathy and understanding for her characters.

The Setting

Winter in Vermont: dark pine trees, heavy snow, an isolated college campus. The group of students who form the main cast of characters is a wealthy one, with access to privileged settings like the old country mansion where much of the story unfolds. In contrast to this is the dense forest and the wild, snow-covered ravines – the presence of dangerously unpredictable nature that influences the plot and themes of the novel.

The Language

Donna Tartt is a talented writer, and her flowing style is a pleasure to read; The Secret History has deservedly been republished in Penguin Modern Classics. In particular, she has a gift for capturing emotion and motivation with a few well-chosen words. Here is Richard, confronting the terrible truth about the effects of the crime that was meant to liberate him:

I suppose at one time in my life I might have had a number of stories, but now there is no other. This is the only story I will ever be able to tell.

The Themes

The meanings behind the enthralling plot and clever writing of The Secret History are powerful ones. The brazen over-confidence and extreme selfishness of privileged youth; the ambiguous power of classical knowledge in the wrong hands; the thin line between civilization and total savagery. The vulnerability of the follower to life’s natural leaders is an important issue: Richard would not have committed murder without the influence of his charismatic friends, they would not have been able to act without his collusion.

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The Library Book (Book Review)

One of the best books that I’ve bought recently celebrates the joy of reading in libraries. The Library Book has a cast of excellent authors – Alan Bennett, Stephen Fry, Zadie Smith and others -writing about their experiences of using libraries. As children, adolescents and adults, these people  enjoyed and benefitted from their reading;  in this slim, elegant book they celebrate the library as sanctuary, as a source of creativity, as a place of education and self-discovery. You can read an edited version of Alan Bennett’s lively and entertaining contribution here 

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A Common Loss / Kirsten Tranter

Australian author Kirsten Tranter’s second novel is as accomplished as her first ; she is a natural story-teller with a gift for language.  The ‘common loss’ in the title refers to the shared bereavement of four young American men. On one level, their loss is the death of  a close friend from university days.  On a deeper level,  all of the men – but particularly Elliot, the narrator – have lost a common understanding, the accepted view of their shared past.

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