Book Review: The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova

It’s been 12 years since Elizabeth Kostova’s debut novel, The Historian, was first released. It was an instant best-seller, received with much acclaim. For me, it’s been one of those books I’ve picked up many times and yet never read. The same went for her second novel The Swan Thieves. Sometimes these books just pass you by, don’t they? Maybe it’s your mood when you’re in the book store, or where you are in life.  More often than not it’s simply a matter of time – a lack thereof.

Elizabeth’s latest release however, caught my eye almost immediately. The blurb suggested a mystery, a coming-of-age story and historical fiction, and this book is all of those.

The Shadow Land is the story of Alexandra Boyd, a young woman who travels to Bulgaria from the U.S. to come to terms with the loss of her brother in her early teens. Bulgaria fascinated them both as children, so Alexandra has lined up a job there teaching English. The day she arrives, mere moments after she’s been taken to a hotel from the airport, she helps an elderly couple into a taxi and inadvertently holds onto one of their bags.

Alexander discovers that the bag contains human ashes, which the couple was surely taking to bury somewhere. The only clues she has are a photograph she took, the name on the urn – Stoyan Lazarov – and an off-hand comment that they were travelling to a nearby monastery. She enlists the help of a grumpy young taxi driver who insists she call him Bobby. Like Stoyan, Bobby turns out to be so much more than what he seems at first.

Alexandra and Bobby embark on a journey that takes them across Bulgaria in search of a family whose lives had been so impacted by Bulgaria’s communist-era past that, decades later, they’re still running from it.

To be honest, before reading The Shadow Land, there wasn’t much I could tell you about Bulgaria, except that it was somewhere in Eastern Europe and was, for a period of time, a communist country allied with the Soviet Union. I have a vague memory of Bulgaria being involved in the Cold War from my International Politics unit during my university days. Something like that anyway.

The Shadow Land opened my eyes to the impact of communism more effectively than any university unit. It brought it to life for me through the eyes of Stoyan Lazarov and those he loved. Isn’t it just amazing the way fiction can do this? So many times in my life people have tried to tell me you can only truly learn from non-fiction, from text books, criticism and first-hand accounts. Fiction, they say, is just a story, an escape from reality. But fiction brings history to life in a way non-fiction often struggles to do. It brings depth, context and emotion to what could otherwise be dry facts spouted monotonously by a bored university professor.

I’m grateful to Elizabeth Kostova for bringing this aspect of history to life for me in a way that’s engaging, beautifully detailed and rich with emotion.  I’ll be going back to look at her other books now for sure.

Amanda x

 

Book Review: Red Sister by Mark Lawrence

Alright, we admit it – Jody and I are generally pretty sexist when it comes to books. We’re not sure why but we tend to lean towards female writers, probably because they more often have female lead characters who are easier to relate to. They’re just more familiar, more comforting. But recently, we both made an exception. We read about a book coming out by Mark Lawrence. His name was familiar to us because of his popular Broken Empire series. We’ve both often picked up the first book of that series, but never committed.

When we read about his latest book Red Sister though, the blurb sounded right up our alley. Jody found it first on iBooks and downloaded the sample. Then we we spotted it on a new release trolley in one of our local bookshops, waiting to be put on display. Never fear, where there’s a book we must read, there’s a way. We snuck up to that trolley and furtively slipped two copies off the stack. We were pretty impressed with our book-ninja moment. I’m sure they would have given them to us if we’d asked, but this was much more entertaining.

Red Sister is the story of Nona Grey, who’s accused of murder at eight years old but saved from the gallows by a sister from the Convent of Sweet Mercy. Nona soon discovers the girls who live at the convent come from various walks of life and are trained and tested to find their fit in one of four disciplines, the most infamous of which is Red. The girls who demonstrate their suitability for the Red discipline become trained assassins, skilled in armed and unarmed combat, feared and revered across the land. Nona must catch up quickly if she has any hope of surviving the rigorous training and education regime at the hands of the sisters, some of whom are downright merciless. Along the way she does manage to find moments of kindness and friendship, small lights in the grim, dark tunnel of her short life so far.

Nona is a likeable character right from the start. She’ll draw you into the book, then help you through some of the overwhelmingly violent scenes at the beginning. You’re immediately on her side, and her strength and courage keep you turning the pages. She’s a fighter who goes through a lot in the short time before her internment at the convent, and even more from then on.

The book incorporates flash-forwards every now and then which really make you wonder what’s going to happen to get the characters to that point. It’s a technique we’ve usually seen in suspense novels but it works here too. It can be a little confusing, but at the same time, completely engaging.

What really hooks you in though is Mark Lawrence’s incredibly descriptive writing. He’s built this world with so much rich detail and so much thought that it feels entirely credible. Combine that with a thoroughly well-planned story, and we can only hope it will be continued as a series.

Jody says “this book has now restored my faith in fantasy” and she’s right. It’s so much more than those flash-and-burn fantasy-romance books around at the moment. It’s like the difference between sitting down for a six-course degustation meal compared to a quick fast-food drive through.

If you like Robin Hobb and Trudi Canavan, or even Patrick Rothfuss – those long-form, epic fantasies – you’ll love this one. We sure did.

Jody & Amanda

Book Review: All That Is Lost Between Us by Sara Foster

all-that-is-lost-between-us

Hello again! I know it has been a long time between reviews for me (so my colleagues have been reminding me). My problem is I haven’t actually read a book in quite a while; in fact the last book I read was A Promise of Fire by Amanda Bouchet.

While I may not have been reading, that didn’t stop me from buying books only to put them on the book shelf and look at them, much to the amusement of my husband.

So the big question is, what was the book that finally got me reading again? It was the couldn’t-put-down, read-until-my-eyes-couldn’t-stay-open, All That Is Lost Between Us by Sara Foster. Sara is one of Australia’s bestselling psychological suspense authors and in my newly-formed opinion it’s not hard to see why.

All That Is Lost Between Us is a psychological thriller, but at the same time it’s so much more. I think what sets All That Is Lost Between Us apart from other books of this time is the way Sara develops her characters. You get to know each of them and become invested in their stories. At the same time there is a suspenseful undertone to the story, which had me cuddling closer to my pillow as the goosebumps crept up my arms. What I also found amazing was the way Sara completely transported me to the English country side and the wild marsh country. I could almost feel the mist on my arms. While this book might be too light on the suspense part for some readers, it was perfect for me.

Georgia and her family are believable characters with real life worries and normal family dynamics. Georgia, 17, has withdrawn from her family and her cousin Sophia, who is her best friend. Anya, her mother and a counsellor, knows something is wrong but Georgia is always shutting her out and she doesn’t know how to reach her. Georgia’s father is dealing with his own guilt, and when Georgia’s brother Zac discovers what is behind the change in his sister the family reaches crisis point.

In the days since finishing All That Is Lost Between Us, I’ve been scouring the book stores for my next read. However, as Amanda and I have both found, there isn’t too much around at the moment that we’re interested in. My solution to this problem was to start reading Beneath The Shadows another book by Sara Foster and as of last night, or should I say the early hours of the morning, I am totally hooked! In fact I can’t wait till everyone goes to sleep tonight and I get my quiet time so I can finish.

I want to end by saying “Thank you Sara Foster for deciding you wanted to be a writer, I will be forever grateful!”

Jody

P.S

After doing some investigating today I found out Sara has a new book coming out this year, and I can’t wait. The title is The Hidden Hours and it’s out in April in Australia. Lucky I have a couple more of Sara’s books to read before then to keep me happy.

Book Review: Swing Time by Zadie Smith

Okay. So it’s been a while, I know. In fact, you’ve probably just about given up on us. Brushed us off as one of those flash and burn blogs that soon fade into oblivion. There’s no excuse really, except that Jody and I both fell under that dratted weather bow again. Then we were dealing with the usual end-of-year chaos which has meant that we haven’t had time to have our brainstorm book-discussions, and honestly, neither of us have even had much time to read!

But then the summer holidays came (well over here in Oz – yep, we live in the land of the Wizard!) and thank goodness for that! A few blessed days away surrounded by family, sitting by the beach, reading, eating, relaxing, all those things. Reading, most importantly, of course.

I had been saving Zadie Smith’s Swing Time just for a couple of those lazy days. There’s been quite a bit of hype surrounding it, as with any of her novels, and this one struck a particular chord with me, being an ex-dancer and all.

It’s a story of the great trials of female friendship, so there are  parallels with the Elena Ferrante’s novels I so loved last year (can you believe it is last year already?!). The unnamed protagonist and her ever-so-talented friend Tracey live a childhood imbued with dance and music, just as Zadie’s writing continues to be throughout the book. If you took note of the songs, musicals and artists she mentions, I think you’d have a pretty fabulous playlist.

Zadie writes with a frankness other authors struggle to match. Her narrator moves through life from London to West Africa, seemingly on a search for meaning, but really just floating along in fortuitous relative comfort. Meanwhile, her school friend Tracey manages to scrape through as a chorus-girl before failed relationships and the birth of her children leave her struggling to make ends meet. Which was the greater success? The girl who didn’t really try and succeeded only to prove to others she could, or the one who worked every day of her life towards a goal, only to give it up?

This is a story fractured by inequality, book-ended by the too-rich and the too-poor and the push and pull of money given and money taken away. It’s a beautiful, nuanced novel with layers that still come to mind in unexpected moments weeks later.

Amanda x

Book Review: The Good People by Hannah Kent

Hannah Kent is a name most Aussie readers would be more than familiar with. In fact, many readers around the world have read the incredible success story that was Hannah’s first novel, Burial Rites, published in 2013. So it was with some trepidation that I picked up her second novel, The Good People. Could she do it again? Could she weave another story with the same delicacy and skill of her previous novel? Surely it was such a pressure, such a weight on her shoulders.

From what I’ve read and heard, the idea for The Good People was sparked while Hannah was researching Burial Rites. She came across a little snippet of a news story about an Irish healing woman who had been charged with a terrible crime and acquitted because she believed the victim to be a changeling. In Irish folklore, a changeling is type of fairy.

The novel is set in 1825, in a small village on the Flesk River. It’s an interesting period in Ireland’s history, as Catholicism is becoming more and more dominant, and the old ways – those pagan rituals and laws – are being questioned by the church.

The story is woven around three main protagonists, Nance Roche, the village healing woman, Nora Leahy, a middle-aged villager, and Mary Clifford, a servant hired to help with Nora’s sickly grandchild. The child came into Nora’s care after her daughter’s death and while once a bonny lad, now, at the age of four he can’t speak or walk and generally shows the symptoms of a child with a severe disability.

So this is the fascinating premise of the book. Hannah Kent somehow makes it completely understandable that someone like Nora, faced with a disabled child, and without knowledge of modern medical practices,  would conclude her once happy and contented grandchild has been stolen by The Good People and replaced by a fairy changeling. She decides that banishing this changeling is the only way to get her true grandchild back. Why not? What else could possibly explain such a transformation? And isn’t there some degree of comfort in knowing it is in fact not your child, and that by conducting various rituals there is the possibility yours will be returned to you?

Hannah’s meticulous research has built a world full of vivid detail, crafting a story that opens a window into the past. You read slowly to savour each well-developed sentence, the immersive dialogue, the rich descriptions. You read to learn about life in that period, the hardships, the rituals, the community. The story doesn’t have the same building tension as Burial Rites, but it doesn’t seem to matter. Hannah is brimming with talent. Her writing style makes me think of Geraldine Brooks so if you’ve read one and not the other, you should definitely explore them further.

I can only think what a bright, brilliant star Hannah Kent is and how lucky we are that she calls Australia home. I can’t wait to see where she takes us next.

Amanda x

On Australian Women Writers. You are amazing.

You may have read that Jody’s going through a bit of a reading slump at the moment. Fortunately, while she is struggling, I’m devouring some of the best books I’ve read this year. Say goodbye to slump days, and hello long train and plane trips to nowhere, I say! Isn’t it just the best feeling when you have a long stretch of time to fill ahead of you and the book you’re reading makes it go by in a flash?

What really impressed me about the books I’ve been inhaling is they’re all Australian… and they’re all written by women. I know we’ve waxed lyrical many times about the quality of literature in this country but it continues to amaze me. This year I’ve really grown into a passionate advocate of Australian writing, with good reason.

So, with that in mind I signed up Jody and I to the Australian Women Writers Challenge, whereby we challenge ourselves to read a certain amount of works written by Australian women. Child’s play I say. Why didn’t we do this months ago, Jody says? We’ve already read SO many without even noticing! Out of all of the beautiful, astonishing, incredible books we’ve blogged about this year, by my (rough) calculations, at least half have been by Australian women. Helen Garner, Peggy Frew, Cath Crowley, Emily Maguire, Anita Heiss, Fiona Wright, Liane Moriarty, Sofie Laguna, Inga Simpson – the list goes on and on and on. And that’s only the tip, there are so many more we’ve read but not had time to review.

Is it Australia’s isolation from the rest of the world that makes for such diversity and quality among our female writers? Is it our education system? Is it the passion we have for our culture? Is it courage? It takes great courage to pick up the proverbial pen and write in a country that has such richness in landscape and story, and yet has an “ingrained, unconscious bias” against female writers.

I do know this: I am so proud of the literature produced by women in this country. I know some argue it could be more diverse. I know some argue it could better reflect the society we live in. But if you ask me, it’s getting there – you just need to know where to look. And apologies to those blokes out there, but I look to women.

I look to women because I feel their empathy. I look to women because I feel their passion. I look to women because they, and their characters, are vibrant and fierce and funny and kind. I look to women because I think we need a louder voice in this country and I know that voice can be found in literature. In the delicate, curious, exploration of our past, in the ardent advocacy of a different, more all-encompassing future. When they write, I listen. What they write, I learn from. So please, from one reader, from many readers – write more, and know that we are listening.

Amanda x

 

Book Review: Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley

Sorry we didn’t post a review last week, I’ve been a bit under the weather. Wait. What does that even mean? Under the weather? Aren’t we always under the weather? Hm. A quick Google search reveals this:

The term is correctly ‘under the weather bow’ which is a gloomy prospect; the weather bow is the side upon which all the rotten weather is blowing.

Well. I’ve been under the weather bow and it has been unpleasant to say the least. My poor husband has certainly had his wedding vow tested over the past week! In sickness and in health, right?! And, to make matters worse, for some reason whenever I get sick, I can’t read. I just can’t stand the thought of skimming my eyes over the pages. It’s like a kind of vertigo. Does anyone else get like this?

The sky is looking brighter however, and I have to tell you about this fantastic book I just finished. It’s called Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley. Cath is an Aussie Young Adult author, particularly well known (to me at least) for her YA book Graffiti Moon, which came out a few years ago and received a whole host of accolades.

Words in Deep Blue is a love story (it even says so on the cover). But it certainly isn’t a traditional YA romance. It’s more of a love letter really. One long love letter to words and literature, to books, to family and friends. A loss letter too. The loss of a brother, the loss of a friendship, the loss of a place.

The story is told through Rachel and Henry, two late teens who grew up together before Rachel and her brother moved away. When Rachel’s brother dies, her outlook on life changes. She becomes afraid. Depressed. Sad. Distant. Everything she wasn’t. She returns to the city, to Howling Books – Henry’s family’s second hand bookshop – to try and piece her life together after she fails Year 12.

There’s a delicacy to this book that I didn’t expect and much of this is thanks to the Letter Library – a shelf of books in the bookstore which can be written in and where people leave letters to their loved ones. Entire conversations occur within the pages of these novels. It feels like a comment on the fragility of the online world and the permanence of print. I can see Letter Libraries popping up in second hand bookstores all around the world. I know I’m already wondering how we can incorporate one into the library.

This book really struck a chord with me. It’s lyrical and lovely, the words flowing across the page, the story coming to life so clearly. It’s full of whimsy and philosophy, full of little nods to great literature, all the while maintaining its modernity. It’s also an intelligent book, it doesn’t assume ignorance and naivety from the YA audience it seeks and I love that.

Perhaps Words In Deep Blue was exactly what I needed at this time. But perhaps it’s just a great read and I’d bank on that.

Amanda x