An American Marriage

Once again, Barack Obama’s reading list has not disappointed! Tayari Jones’ unforgettable new novel is a powerful modern love story that will draw you in from the first page, and keep you enthralled until the last - actually, it’s an ideal choice for this time of year, as you’re heading into the Christmas/end-of-school-year madness. It’s easy to read, but full of substance.

Newlyweds Roy and Celestial are busy chasing their own version of the American Dream. Hardworking Roy has recently graduated from college and is climbing the corporate ladder as a marketing executive; as a young black male, his mother has breathed a sigh of relief that he’s made it this far without landing himself in prison. Celestial is an up-and-coming artist with talent, dedication and big dreams.

But then tragedy strikes and their lives are turned upside down by circumstances beyond their control. It’s a case of ‘wrong place, wrong time’, and suddenly Roy finds himself serving a 12-year prison sentence for a crime that Celestial knows he didn’t commit.

What follows is the heart-wrenching story of their relationship as they adjust to separate lives - his behind bars, while Celestial’s life moves forward - and as Celestial draws comfort from her childhood friend, Andre, who is also responsible for introducing Roy and Celestial back in their college days.

The characters are so authentic and so vividly portrayed that you feel you could reach out and touch them - and the way they’re developed so deeply requires amazing skill. A story of injustice, betrayal, loyalty and responsibility, this is a beautifully written book that really makes you question what it means to love someone. It’s much more than another story of racial prejudice in the Deep South - it’s a story that goes to the very heart of what it means to love, and to be loved.

Nine Perfect Strangers

So...last night I finished this highly anticipated new release by Liane Moriarty, and I was disappointed. It started off well but then became so far-fetched that it lost me. I understand that it’s satire, questioning why people with comfortable lives are forever (unnecessarily?) pursuing optimal wellness and self-improvement; and that we hand ourselves over to all kinds of ‘experts’ who promise such benefits. But it was so unrealistic.

As always, I do think Moriarty is a master at observing human behaviour - our insecurities, ambitions, priorities and interactions with others. In that sense, the book is enjoyable.


Surprisingly, Goodreads is full of 5-star reviews! Maybe for some, it appeals because it’s far-fetched, risky and pushes the boundaries? Not sure. But if you’re yet to experience Liane Moriarty, don’t start with this one - try Big Little Lies or What Alice Forgot, as both are fabulous.

Less

A beautiful and thought-provoking love story, with equal doses of humor and wisdom. The main character is endearing Arthur Less - single, lonesome, and a struggling author who’s about to turn 50. He’s just received a wedding invitation from Freddy, his former lover, who became engaged just months after leaving Arthur...and Arthur is panic-stricken. Should he attend? He can’t possibly! So he flees the country...and what follows is a series of misadventures in far-flung places, while he comes to understand the true nature of love.

Sing, Unburied, Sing

It's not often that a book comes highly recommended by two such influential people - Barack Obama and Margaret Atwood. But it's easy to see why Jesmyn Ward's beautiful novel received such praise.

Set in America's deep south, this is a heartbreaking story of a broken, dysfunctional family; a family that is ravaged by drug addiction and racial prejudice, whose lives are in constant flux between struggle and hope.

The narration of the story skips between three main characters: young Jo-Jo, an endearing child who suffers at the hands of his parents' abuse and neglect; his 47-year-old mother Leonie, a drug-addicted black woman whose devotion to her white husband, Michael, eclipses any maternal feelings for her two children ; and the ghost of Richie, a young black boy who knew Jo-Jo's grandfather in prison.

The story begins with Michael doing time in prison, although news of his release occurs early in the novel. Meanwhile, Leonie's drug addiction means she is often physically absent, and always emotionally absent - so much so, that Jo-Jo and his sister Kayla call their black grandparents 'Mama and Pop', and their actual parents by their first names. Tragically, Jo-Jo's white grandparents refuse to have any contact with Leonie or their mixed-race grandchildren. Against all the odds, Jo-Jo is a loving boy - his sister's main carer and her fierce protector.

Ward writes beautifully and descriptively, with poetic language that conjures up a vivid portrait of both the physical landscape of Mississippi and the emotional landscape of Black America.  The use of ghosts as central characters may not be to everyone's liking, but I found it interesting, original and appropriate for the novel.

I read this on the back of My Absolute Darling, which in hindsight was not the best choice - two heavy books about child abuse and neglect was too tough to handle at times. If you're interested in books about racial prejudice in America, add this one to your list - although The Underground Railroad would still rank higher in my opinion. (And rest assured, The Underground Railroad was also on Obama's reading list!)

 

My Absolute Darling

My Absolute Darling: A Novel
By Gabriel Tallent

Warning: this book is not for everyone. It's dark, depressing and one hundred percent unsettling. But it's a powerful, brilliant piece of writing, and I gave it 4/5 stars.

In the same vein as A Little Life, Gabriel Tallent's debut novel takes you places that you don't want to go, describing in detail the very worst of humanity. Turtle is a 14-year-old girl who is abused by her widowed father - physically, psychologically and emotionally. He is a monster of a man - in fact, I don't think I've ever despised a character as much as Martin Alveston.

Set in a remote coastal area of California, Turtle lives with her father in their run-down, neglected homestead on a valuable piece of land that has been owned by her family for years. Not surprisingly, Turtle struggles with her schooling and feels like a social outcast, until she befriends a couple of young boys from her local town. Through them, Turtle glimpses a different way of living, and she slowly realises that there may be an alternative to being completely controlled by her father.

Despite the brutal and explicit content of My Absolute Darling, there is something compelling about this book that keeps you hooked until the end - although for the most part, you'll be holding your breath and wishing for it all to be over.  One thing's for sure: if you're prepared to push beyond your comfort zone and give this book a shot, Turtle's story will stay with you long after you've devoured the last page. But you'll be ready for a lighter Liane Moriarty book next!

 

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

My 12-year-old daughter recommended this book about the Holocaust, after reading it at school. It's based on a genuine friendship between a German boy whose father is a Nazi commander, and a Jewish boy who lives on the other side of the fence (although never specifically named, the fence belongs to the concentration camp at Auschwitz). 

It's a thin book - you'll fly through it in a couple of sittings. Even though it's very sad, I think it's an appropriate introduction to the Holocaust for children, because it's appropriately vague on some of the details, so the reader fills the gaps based on their knowledge of this horrific period of history.

A Gentleman in Moscow

Truly one of my reading highlights from 2018 - I loved this book! It's a beautiful piece of work and I wanted to savor every perfectly crafted sentence, with its many clever historical and literary references.

The book is set during a turbulent period in Russia's history, a few years after the Revolution. Count Alexander Rostov, a handsome and charming gentleman, has been hauled before the courts and sentenced to a life under house arrest after being declared a 'Former Person' for writing a counter-revolutionary poem. At the time of his arrest, the Count was living in a luxurious suite at Moscow's Hotel Metropol, and so this becomes the place of his imprisonment - although he was downgraded from his suite to a small, pokey bedroom.

On the outside, Moscow is enduring a time of violent upheaval, but the Hotel Metropol is an oasis of sorts, a microcosm of a world gone by, where revolving glass doors reveal distinguished guests who take their place in the grand dining room, to sip on expensive French wines and meticulously prepared haute cuisine - even when the chef has to be creative with his ingredients due to food shortages.

Over the years, we learn more of the Count's story and meet his friends living and working in the hotel, who make his life rich and rewarding despite its restrictions. This book was full of endearing characters, but none more so than the Count himself, who was intelligent, sophisticated and classy - the perfect dinner guest! It's a slower paced, meandering novel rather than a gripping fast-paced action story, but I completely fell in love with both the characters and Amor Towles' beautiful writing. Highly recommended - 5 stars from me.

The Shepherd's Hut

After reading Cloudstreet more than 20 years ago, and not particularly loving it , I decided I should give Winton another go...and I loved his latest novel, The Shepherd’s Hut. Although, to be honest, it took me a while to get into. The main character, Jaxie Clackton, has a distinctive style of speech that is filled with incorrect grammar (“I found me bag”), lazy speech (“I cudda done that”) and lots of f-bombs. But once I was fully into the swing of the text, I felt his language helped to create a vivid picture of Jaxie, who underneath the rough facade was really a lovable rogue.

When the story begins, Jaxie’s mother has recently died from cancer. Disturbingly, Jaxie and his mother were the victims of domestic violence, and the perpetrator was his father Sid, who he calls Captain Wankbag.  Sid was also the butcher in their small town, where the local IGA had recently closed down – therefore the townsfolk tiptoed around Sid pretending that they didn’t notice his aggression, because they relied on him for their meat.

Not long into the story, Jaxie returns home to find that Sid’s Hilux has collapsed on top of him as he was doing some maintenance work. Jaxie knew instantly that Sid was dead, but then panicked, thinking that people would accuse Jaxie of killing his father. So, he hurriedly packed up a few essentials and fled town.

The novel then turns into an account of survival in the harsh Australian outback, as Jaxie attempts to travel by foot from Monkton to Magnet, where his girlfriend lives. Along the way he stumbles upon an isolated, run down shepherd’s hut, and he finds himself embroiled in a situation he never would have expected.

As Jaxie struggles to survive in the outback, he is also struggling internally. He’s angry and confused and is searching for peace – but he doesn’t know how to find it. Winton tackles some complex themes in this novel, including our notions of honest masculinity, packaged religion versus personal interpretations of spirituality, unlikely friendships, solitude, trust and retribution.

I imagine this novel will become an Australian classic in the same way as Jasper Jones, featuring on the reading lists of school and university students. There’s definitely a lot to analyse and discuss.

The Life to Come

The Life to Come: A Novel
By Michelle de Kretser

I know this book has been shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award, but I'm going to go out on a limb and say that I really didn't enjoy Michelle de Krester's latest novel, despite coming highly recommended from the staff at Readings. In fact, I abandoned it about two thirds through, finding the characters dull and their stories uninspiring.

The novel follows the lives of a few remotely connected characters who are living in various parts of the world - Sydney, Paris and Sri Lanka. I usually love anything do with Paris, but even that wasn't enough to get me over the line with this book!

Little Fires Everywhere

I’d seen this book recommended as ‘the best book of 2017’ on a couple of Facebook feeds. When our book club chose this as our summer read, I was sure I’d find a copy without too much hassle. But the Torquay book shop had sold out, and so had the one at Aireys Inlet. What’s more, the lovely man who ran the Anglesea mobile library told me there were over 70 people on the waitlist! As you could imagine, its scarcity only made me more desperate to get my hands on a copy…

Celeste Ng’s second book doesn’t disappoint. Her writing is beautiful and draws you in from the very first page. Shaker Heights, the suburban setting for the book, reminded me instantly of a literary version of Wisteria Lane (of Desperate Housewives fame): full of manicured gardens, picture-perfect houses and beautiful residents.

When Mia Warren arrives in town, her life as a frugal single mother and itinerant artist is in sharp contrast to that of all the other residents, especially her landlords, the Richardson family. But soon all four Richardson children are drawn to Mia and her teenage daughter Pearl, and in several ways the two families become involved in each other’s lives. However, they don’t always see eye to eye – especially when Mrs Richardson’s closest friend is involved in a custody battle over an abandoned Chinese-American baby.

If you liked The Light Between Oceans, you’ll love this book, with its questions of what it means to be a mother, and the way it challenges our perceptions of right versus wrong. Little Fires Everywhere contains all the essential ingredients for a bestseller – intrigue, lovable characters, twists and turns, guilt, grief, secrets and suspense – so it’s no surprise that bookshops have found it hard to keep up with demand.

On the Java Ridge

On the Java Ridge
By Jock Serong

I would highly recommend this book to any Australian – it’s a fast-paced and gripping page turner, but more importantly it’s a compelling story that highlights a controversial political issue. Regardless of which side you’re on when it comes to Australia’s border control and refugee policies, this novel by local author Jock Serong will make you stop and think.

The early part of the novel switches between three plot-lines, which become more entwined as the story progresses. Firstly, there’s Cassius Calvert, the Australian minister for “Border Integrity”, who has rushed through a tough new refugee policy in the days leading up to a federal election. Cassius confirms at a press conference that Australia will be outsourcing the protection of its northern borders to a private company, Core Resolve. He is vague when questioned about the exact details of this arrangement.

Then, there’s a boat-load of refugees fleeing war-torn countries, including 9-year-old Afghani Roya and her heavily pregnant mother. Roya’s father and brother have been abducted by the Taliban and their fate remains unknown, but Roya fears the worst. Their final crossing from Indonesia to Australia takes place in a crowded boat called the Takalar that is skippered by a furtive Iraqi.

There’s also a second boat in the same waters, skippered by Australian Isi Natali. However, instead of refugees, the passengers on board are thrill-seeking Aussies who have paid up for a surfing trip out to remote Indonesian islands.

A storm is brewing, both literally and figuratively, as the paths of both boats cross in the waters surrounding a small Indonesian island. And as events unfold, and the clock ticks towards Saturday’s federal election, Cassius comes under increasing pressure from both sides of the refugee debate.

This is a story of cover-ups, misrepresentation, resilience and the way we react under pressure – but most of all, it gives a human face to the refugee crisis and shines the spotlight on the apathetic views of many Australians.

Jean Harley Was Here

Jean Harley Was Here: A Novel
By Heather Taylor Johnson

Jean Harley is a devoted mother to her 4-year-old son Orion, and adored wife of Stan. She’s a talented dancer and a reliable and treasured friend. But one day on her way to work, tragedy strikes. This book is a really honest and credible account of how Jean’s family and friends process their grief, come to terms with their loss, and rebuild their lives.

Interspersed with these chapters is the story of Charley Cromwell, an ex-con who was partly responsible for Jean’s accident. Charley has his own guilt to process – and his story is a touching reminder that we should never be too quick to judge others.

If you like a gripping page-turner, this is probably not the book for you. But as Hannah Kent accurately commented, ‘It’s a book to savour’.

I really enjoyed this novel, scoring it 4 out of 5 on Goodreads – it’s a pleasure to read and very easy to relate to the characters. There are girls’ catch-ups at the pub, mothers living the daily grind with newborns and toddlers, ageing parents, shifting dynamics between friends, new relationships, struggling relationships and everything in between.

Just a warning though – as a mother with young children, it will invariably get you thinking about how life would proceed if anything happened to you. I’ll admit to shedding a tear or two!

Force of Nature

Jane Harper's much anticipated follow-up to The Dry didn’t disappoint. I was hooked from the first page and devoured the novel in two days, reading late into the night.  

When Daniel Bailey, head of a small accounting firm, takes his team on a corporate retreat, he chooses a challenging 3-day hike through the infamous Giralang Ranges, where 20 years earlier a serial killer named Martin Kovac had fatally attacked four young women. Kovac had been sentenced to life in prison, but the ghost stories lingered.

Heading off into the bush for their team-building challenge, the five women follow one path and the five men follow another. Each group is armed with a map, a compass and enough food for the first day – but mobile phones are banned. Each night, at a designated camp spot, their next lot of food supplies await. Both teams are due back to the lodge by 12pm on Sunday.

However, only the men’s team makes the deadline. Finally, the women’s group emerges from the bush – late, dirty and bedraggled – but one of them is missing. What has become of Alice Russell, the pretty blond with a feisty nature?

As an added complication, Alice is a whistle blower in a money-laundering case involving Daniel Bailey’s firm – she’s been approached by Police Inspector Aaron Falk and his partner Carmen to access a series of internal contracts that are integral to building their case. She is due to hand over the contracts on Sunday evening after she’s completed the hike and returned to Melbourne.

As Falk and Carmen investigate the case, they can’t help but wonder if they’ve contributed to Alice’s disappearance.

Unlike The Dry, which was set in the midst of a desperate drought, this book takes place in cold, damp mountainous Victoria. But once again Harper’s writing is descriptive and atmospheric, so it’s easy to imagine yourself plodding through the eerie and treacherous Giralang Ranges.

Force of Nature has a hint of Picnic at Hanging Rock about it, with a woman missing in the bush; but it also reminded me of Lord of the Flies, with the downwards spiral from civilised to feral that occurs when people are desperate to survive.

Overall, I’d give this novel 4.5 stars, compared to 5 stars for The Dry – it didn’t have quite as many twists and turns, but the writing is still excellent and the story is full of suspense.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

Several of our book clubbers voted Eleanor as their favourite book of 2017 – a big call! But it’s certainly a very special book – a considerable achievement by debut novelist Gail Honeyman. It’s already claimed a number of literary prizes and is soon to be made into a film by no other than Reese Witherspoon, who is also responsible for bringing other book club favourites to the big screen (Big Little Lies and The Dry).

It’s not always easy to find a book that instantly draws you in, but this one does – from the very first paragraph. Eleanor is a very endearing character – set in her ways, and very particular about everything from her evening meals to her preferred brand of Vodka to her no-nonsense black work shoes. Eleanor is a square peg in a round hole – she sees the world differently.

Our book club had quite an animated discussion about whether Eleanor is on the spectrum, or whether her personality traits are a result of life’s traumatic events. But either way, you’ll laugh out loud at her unique observations of everyday life, and cry too, at the horrors that some people endure. Ultimately though, this book is an uplifting reminder that a little kindness and warmth makes the world of difference to people living on the margins of society.  

PS. The audio version of this book comes highly recommended.  

The Course of Love

The Course of Love: A Novel
By Alain de Botton

Alain de Botton’s long-awaited second novel is a thought-provoking book that tells the tale of a young couple living in Scotland. Kirsten and Rabih meet, fall in love, get married, and then – according to fairy tales – should live happily ever after. But as de Botton points out, this is where the real story begins. Instead of asking couples ‘how did you meet?’ the actual question of interest is ‘what happened after the wedding?’

This warts-and-all view of a modern marriage charts the various challenges of married life – the exhaustion of caring for young children, the daily grind of working families, never-ending household chores, financial pressures, career frustrations, extramarital temptations, the death of elderly parents – and the inherent rewards for those who persevere.

It’s a beautifully-written and insightful book that makes you ponder your own marriage. There’s not a strong plot line; rather, the focus is on the two main characters and their responses to life’s challenges. Also, the novel acknowledges the fact that we all bring ‘baggage’ to our marriage, in one way or another, and that our upbringing shapes our future relationships.

The Course of Love is a celebration of the everyday, the mundane. One of my favourite quotes was when the author suggests that we shouldn’t compare our relationships to the romantic plot lines that we see in films. Real life will never live up to those expectations: ‘By the standards of most love stories, our own, real relationships are almost all damaged and unsatisfactory. No wonder separation and divorce so often appear inevitable. But we should be careful not to judge our relationships by the expectations imposed on us by a frequently misleading aesthetic medium. The fault lies with art, not life’.

Woven through the narrative are additional paragraphs that offer a philosophical and psychological examination of the behaviour of the protagonists. Some of our book clubbers confessed to skipping these sections, as they felt it disrupted the flow of the story – whereas others enjoyed the extra analysis.

In summary, this is a novel for readers who like to reflect on life, and to think about the reasons why people behave the way that they do (Carmen!); if that doesn’t sound like you, then you might find it a little slow-moving in parts (Helen!). We also discussed whether you’d recommend this book to friends who are going through a difficult patch in their marriage – and we disagreed on this point! A few people thought you needed to be in a good place in your marriage to handle the book; yet, others thought the content might provide reassurance that marriage can be hard work, it can be boring, but that love is more than romance.

Either way, it’s certainly a book that gets you thinking – and I suspect it’s the kind of book that will spring to mind in the years to come, whenever the benefits or challenges of marriage crop up in conversation.  

The Underground Railroad

I don’t hand out 5-star ratings easily on Goodreads, but I didn’t have to think twice about my verdict for The Underground Railroad – a definite 5-star read. And clearly there are many others who agree: this book won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize and has also received Oprah Winfrey’s coveted stamp of approval.

Set in the 1800s, Colson Whitehead’s beautifully written novel tells the tale of Cora, a runaway slave who escapes a harsh existence on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Urged to escape by fellow slave Caesar, Cora follows in the footsteps of her mother Mabel, who escaped from the same Georgian plantation several years earlier. Mabel was the only slave ever to outsmart the renowned slave-catcher Ridgeway, who hunted her unsuccessfully for years. Not one to forget, Ridgeway is determined to make up for his reputed incompetence this time around.

Historically speaking, the ‘Underground Railroad’ refers to a network of safe houses and secret routes that helped thousands of black slaves to escape from the southern states up to the north, and particularly into Canada. Whitehead uses poetic licence to explore the idea of the Railroad as an actual railway, with underground stations and trains. Relying on sympathetic white ‘station masters’, rickety old carriages and an underground railway built by slaves, Cora and Caesar escape first to South Carolina, where they find work and lodgings, and try to adjust to their new surroundings.

But the relentless Ridgeway is hot on their heels, eager to claim his reward for the return of the runaways, and more importantly, to re-establish his reputation in the eyes of the plantation owner. At each stage of Cora’s journey, she relies on different people to help keep her safe, and while doing so, jeopardises their own safety – white people who harbour black runaways are shown no mercy.

It’s clear that a lot of research has gone into writing this novel, and this makes it especially difficult to stomach the horrific treatment of the black slaves, knowing these atrocities actually did happen.

For me, this book provided another insight into the history of black slavery in the US, and the origins of racial segregation and discrimination. Together with novels such as Gone with the Wind and The Help, The Underground Railroad helps to explain the racial tension that is still present in modern-day America.

In some ways, I was reminded of Exit West, in the way that refugees arrive in new locations and have to adapt quickly in order to survive. Where Exit West used the symbolism of doors to represent each departure/arrival, The Underground Railroad used the underground stations.

Do yourself a favour and read this book. There are many shocking scenes that will take your breath away, but on the other hand, it’s a beautiful story of the resilience and determination of the human spirit, and a reminder that freedom is something we should never take for granted. 

The Essex Serpent

When I lived in London, Waterstones was my favourite book shop; I was there almost weekly, making the most of their ‘3 for 2 deals’, which were innovative at the time. Every now and then, if I’m looking for a new book, I’ll check out their website for recommendations. And this is where I first stumbled upon Sarah Perry’s second novel, The Essex Serpent, which went on to win the British Book Award for 2016 Fiction Book of the Year, plus being voted Waterstones' overall Book of the Year. With each new accolade, it was pushed further up my reading list – and I finally found the time to devour it.

If you enjoyed Hannah Kent's The Good People, or Emma Donoghue's novel The Wonder, then this is your kind of book. It's a similar tale that contrasts established religion with pagan superstition, set in a wild and haunting landscape, during a specific, recognisable period in history. 

There’s a lot to love about this book, but I especially enjoyed the characters. They’re likeable, independent, passionate people – whether their passion is for medical science, religion, social justice or palaeontology. And the relationships between these characters are the driving force of the novel.

The story is set in Victorian England in the year 1893 – a time of social change and scientific discovery. Wealthy Cora Seaborne has been recently widowed, providing relief from her uncaring and abusive husband. Seeking change, Cora casts off her ladylike London ways and moves to the untamed countryside of Essex to pursue her interest in fossils, taking both her autistic son Francis and his nanny (and Cora’s loyal companion) Martha.

Martha is a young intelligent working-class woman who is determined to improve the London housing crisis, where poor families are being forced out of their homes. She’s aware of the admiration of wealthy doctor George Spencer – a shy, affable man – and wonders whether she should encourage his affections, knowing his money and influence will help her cause.

When Cora, Francis and Martha arrive in Colchester, Essex, the locals are alarmed by a series of strange events occurring further up the estuary in Aldwinter; they fear the return of the Essex Serpent, rumoured to roam the marshland claiming human lives, which was last spotted in 1669 (Sarah Perry notes that this was an historical event, and the pamphlet alerting villagers to the presence of the serpent can be found at the British Library).

Cora is fascinated and sets out to learn more about the serpent, thinking it might be an undiscovered sea animal rather than a mythical creature.

Deeply superstitious, the locals wonder what they’ve done to make the mythical serpent return. But the Aldwinter vicar, William Ransome, does his best to allay their concerns and strengthen their belief in God, not superstition.

Cora and William soon strike up a close friendship – one which revolves around their spirited debates on religion and science, and faith versus reason. William is married to beautiful Stella, who he loves deeply, but he can’t shake his attraction to Cora, and he finds it hard to understand why he feels that way. After all, she gets about in a man’s oversized tweed coat, and makes no effort to beautify herself. Cora’s not your typical wealthy, attractive London woman. And this is her appeal.

Meanwhile, Luke Garrett is a leading London doctor who is pushing the boundaries of cardiac surgery, at a time in history when medical science is on the cusp of new discoveries. Much to the angst of his superiors, he is determined to perform an operation in order to save the life of Edward Burton, a man who was stabbed near St Paul’s Cathedral.  As well as fame and fortune, Luke hopes his medical achievement will draw the attention of Cora – the woman he has loved ever since he tended her dying husband.

So, as you can see, this is a book of substance – yes, there’s romance, but there’s much more. Perry is a very talented writer whose descriptions are so vivid that you'll feel like you’re actually clambering over the wet and marshy Essex countryside, in search of the elusive serpent.

Exit West

Exit West: A Novel
By Mohsin Hamid

This is truly a beautiful book that deserves its coveted spot on the 2017 Man Booker shortlist. Mohsin Hamid's perfectly-crafted, flowing sentences tell the moving story of two young lovers, Nadia and Saeed, who flee from their unnamed city when the militants wrestle control from the local government.

Through a series of doors, the displaced couple moves from location to location, looking for a new place to settle - from Mykonos to London to San Francisco. The figurative use of doors was reminiscent of C.S. Lewis' ordinary wardrobe that leads to the magical world of Narnia - but as well as that, it allowed this novel to highlight the sudden shock of migrants who find themselves in new, unfamiliar and often unplanned places, rather than the torturous journeys of overcrowded boats and drownings at sea.

The novel beautifully illustrates the plight of refugees, at a time when the news is full of such stories. It's a very modern novel, with references to social media, drones and online connectivity.

In fact, the story is set in the near future, and describes London as having "a dense zone of migrants in Kensington and Chelsea and in the adjacent parks, and around this zone were soliders and armoured vehicles, and above it were drones and helicopters." Fights break out between the "natives and the migrants" with violent shootings and stabbings, and electricity blackouts across the city.

At the centre of all this chaos is the unraveling of the relationship between Saeed and Nadia - they're simultaneously dependent on one another, while living increasingly independent lives. Hamid's depiction of their relationships is one of the highlights of this novel - so perceptive and honest, and vividly described. I re-read many sentences, appreciating his choice of words and the way he'd put them together.

Given the story spans more than 50 years and 4 countries, it's a relatively short novel and a very easy read. This is definitely a novel you should add to your 'must-read' list - and I have my fingers crossed that it wins the Man Booker prize this year.

Nine Days

Nine Days
By Toni Jordan

It’s very rare that you stumble across a book set in your own local ‘hood – but when it happens, it’s special. I really loved reading about working-class Richmond in the war years, full of factory workers and domestic servants; and I couldn’t help but think how these characters would gasp if they knew that their old workers’ cottages are now worth millions! I’ve wandered the streets of Richmond since finishing the book, and I love imagining all the people that have lived and worked here over the years.

But as much as I enjoyed reading about familiar streets such as Rowena Parade, Bridge Road and Power Street, there’s more to this book than location, location, location. With engaging characters, an intriguing story line and a touching romance, this ‘guaranteed good read’ by Toni Jordan is easily devoured in a couple of sittings.

The story opens in 1939 with the voice of teenager Kip Westaway, whose family is struggling after their father died suddenly, following a drunken accident. Kip is immediately likeable – a hard worker and loyal family member – and I could have happily followed his laneway adventures for the rest of the novel. But the book has an interesting structure, with a new narrator for each chapter. Each character is a member of the Westaway family (spanning four generations), and the story line flits between the second world war years and the current day.

The title Nine Days refers to the nine characters re-telling the events of the most significant day of their life; extraordinary, life-changing moments in their otherwise ordinary lives.  Jordan cleverly integrates three objects – a coin, a purple pendant and a photograph – into the stories of all the characters, providing continuity between the chapters. 

With no clear sign-posts as to the year or the relationship of the next narrator, it’s not always clear how the story fits together, especially early on. Some have described the book as a series of short stories, rather than a novel; and another reviewer likened it to a ‘series of postcards’. Despite the shifting narrators, the chapters were far more connected than a book of short stories.

Jordan skilfully crafts the different voices, allowing the personality of each character to shine through. This is quite an achievement, considering there are nine voices.  I do have to add though, that the turn-of-phrase errors in Alec’s chapter were annoying! Initially, I thought it was an editorial oversight, but there were too many of them – so I assume it was the character’s voice, reflecting a teenager who’s heard different expressions but hasn’t yet mastered them. For example: “I cut off my nose despite my face” and “this was a case and point”.

I have mixed views over the unusual structure and whether it worked well, or was too ambitious. On one hand, I love the way that little snippets of information were scattered throughout the story, requiring the readers to piece it together. But on the other, I would have loved the author to flesh out the characters and some of the missing details. How did Kip’s mother die? Did Kip and Frank fall out over Annabel? Did Jack’s parents ever find out the truth about Connie? But isn’t that the sign of a talented author, to leave us pondering the ending and mulling over the events long after we’ve read the last page?

Wellmania

In today’s busy, connected world, more and more people are looking for ways to switch off; to achieve a sense of balance in their lives, and to discover what it means to live in a state of ‘optimal wellness’. Wellmania is the result of one woman’s yearning to be ‘clean, lean and serene’; kind of like a version of ‘Eat, Pray, Love,’ minus the love!

Journalist Brigid Delaney admits that she’s a hedonist at heart: a lover of late nights, parties and booze. Her life is full of adventure and fun – travelling the world, eating her way across America, and writing about it – but on a deeper level, she knows something is missing. She doesn’t feel sick exactly, but definitely sub-optimal, lethargic and overweight. Something has to change.

Within days, she’s asked to undertake and report on Sydney’s most talked-about detox regime: a strict 101-day fast. Thinking it may just be the catalyst she needs, Delaney agrees, and jumps head-first into the experience; and, true to form, she’s out drinking cocktails until 3am the night before the fast begins.

Through three main sections, the book tells of Delaney’s adventures (or as the book’s cover says, misadventures) in the search for wellness, including attempts at hot yoga, meditation and colonic irrigation. The writing is refreshingly honest, light-hearted and easy to read. There’s plenty of humour, too; but she also discusses some thought-provoking deeper topics, such as the decline of organised religion and the corresponding increase of wellness and mindfulness techniques. Deep down, do we all need to believe in some higher purpose? Or not?

And Delaney grapples with the fact that our quest for wellness has created a billion dollar industry, essentially by marketing ancient traditions to affluent people in first-world countries. It's definitely a cause for reflection, especially if you're a Lululemon-wearing yogi like me.

Overall, if you’re a health and wellness enthusiast, or even if you enjoy dipping in and out of wellness pursuits, then you’ll find this book entertaining, informative and insightful.