Staff Picks – April 2017

Natasha

THE MIDSUMMER GARDEN BY KIRSTY MANNING – $29.99 (Allen & Unwin)

AUSSIE ADULT HISTORICAL FICTION

Admittedly, three things drew me into reading the debut novel The Midsummer Garden by Macedon author, Kirsty Manning; the promise of a sumptuous wedding party in medieval France, a gorgeous cover, and a two time period focus that seemed to echo the style of Kate Morton who I greatly love. Manning’s novel does indeed have traces of Morton’s twin structuring however, here the similarities end and I was pleasantly surprised to be absorbed into the two worlds she has crafted and explored for their own merit. We open with Pip Arnet, in Tasmania 2014 – newly engaged to Jack Rodgers and stressing about completing her Phd in marine biology. Moving in together, demands to settle down and buy Jack’s family wine estate, and the pressures of trying to balance work, love and life made this a fabulous relationship to dip into. Yet, the challenges this young couple face make them talk in circles at times as they try to grapple wanting different things, namely postponing her research work and travel with Jack to Italy to pursue his wine business ideas. In the end, her formidable strong will forces a separation from Jack and subsequent deferral from her post grad research. To contemplate these life changes, Pip takes up an offer to work in a restaurant in Spain where she meets the enigmatic Pedro. How this journey pans out though shows the twists and turns modern life and love can take and I loved not knowing where Pip’s decisions (though flawed at times) would take us.
The initial link from 2014 to to a chateau in 1487 France are some recipe scrolls found inside copper pots given to Pip by her mother by way of her great aunt Margot who had spent many childhood summers in Europe. As we venture back 500 years in time, we see the use of these pots for the wedding day of Lord Boschaud. Our focus on this day is the other central female protagonist, Artemisia. Quoted as being an old (unmarried) hag who bleed 7 years ago, she is seemingly destined to forever be a cook in the estate of Lord Boschaud since being taken under their wing when she was orphaned in infancy. However, her childhood friendship and schooling with her lord and master sees her promoted to kitchen record keeping  – something not approved of by certain Abbots because she is a woman. Her cleverness with figures leads her to suspect wine barrel pilfering, but will be hard to prove due to her position. Alongside this story, is the romantic thread of attracting the attention of spice dealer Andreas who is enchanted by this “Mother of Herbs” and we see how their relationship over the previous year has blossomed to love and plans of marital union but not without opposition, drama and danger. How Artemisia’s story evolves is fascinating and completely unpredictable and shocking in its finale.
Having two periods could cause confusion, however here the shifts are seamless and easily understood. Both worlds are sumptuously and visually described to include interesting details on daily life in the modern oceanic and wine world, foraging in the hills of Macedon where Pip’s parents reside, and modern day Europe. This is contrasted beautifully with the intricate nature of medieval household roles, and the importance of gardening, herb and food in the running of a medieval estate. Both women, though 500 years apart, are grappling with the constraints placed on them by others, as well as finding a smooth course to true love. They have two unique voices and the dialogue was especially realistic in both worlds. It is a fascinating alive book that really traverses time, place and considerations so well. Strongly recommended for those who want to be swept away into two lives – so different to our own and yet familiar in so many ways.


Mark

THE CRUELTY BY SCOTT BERGSTROM –  $18.99 (Walker Books)

TEEN THRILLER

Set in a contemporary world, the protagonist Gwendolyn is the daughter of a diplomat who goes missing. She finds clues her dad has left behind and embarks on a thrilling journey across Europe to save him. Unsure of who to trust, she enters a world of crime, mafia and people trafficking. Trained by an Israeli female spy to protect herself – physically and mentally, Gwendolyn puts her life on the line to become part of a smuggling ring in order to find her dad. What ends up happening is that Gwendolyn will learn more about her father than she ever perhaps wanted to know – a man she seems to not have known at all. It’s unpredictable, visually easy to follow and and the development of Gwendolyn from innocent to assassin was really well done – reminiscent of Beatrice Prior in Divergent at times. All the other characters serve a purpose and kept the book moving along at a thrilling pace and added to the plotline. Definitely 14+ (strong themes of violence, sex and swearing language). Reckon a film is not too far for this one.


Braiden

THE ANIMATORS BY KAYLA RAE WHITAKER – $32.99 (Scribe)

Adult Fiction

It may have been initially presented to me upon investigation as “women’s fiction” (whatever that means) however it was perfectly suited to me as I am in my final year of film and animation. The Animators represented a somewhat authentic portrayal of independent filmmakers, in particular independent animation filmmakers, who are recognised for their work but then fear that they’ll unable to outdo the “one” before.
Sharon and Mel are a young award-winning animation duo who seek inspiration from their own lives, relationships and experiences. Shortly after the success of their first film about Mel’s dysfunctional childhood and family, Sharon suffers a stroke, which leads them to her rural Southern childhood home where relationships are reconciled, trust is broken and buried memories and truths resurface.
It’s about the sacrifices made by a need to create and the strains that has not just on the individual but on the relationships with those closest to them. Both Sharon and Mel are flawed and intriguing women who were worth reading about. The Animators does not have the same level of emotional impact as A Little Life but it still manages to offer fans a similar read about art, belonging and the sacrifices we make to define ourselves.


Steph

THE HATE YOU GIVE BY ANGIE THOMAS – $17.99 (WALKER BOOKS)

YOUNG ADULT

When I first got the proof for this book, I was very excited to read it. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, and the racial bias of the justice system in the US, The Hate U Give offers a very real perspective on what it’s like to be Black in America during the 21st century.  Starr Carter is torn between her life in Garden Heights – the poor neighbourhood where she was born and raised and her life in Williamson – where she attends a posh, mostly white, private school. Between her supportive parents, kind friends and loveable boyfriend, Starr seems to be balancing her two lives quite uneasily but just fine. This is until she bears witness to the fatal shooting of her unarmed childhood friend, Khalil, by a local police officer.
Khalil is accused of being at fault, a local ‘gangbanger,’ but it is up to Starr to get justice for Khalil, who is being persecuted even by her closest friends at Williamson. Despite being threatened by local gangs, and even feeling pressured by the Police, Starr continues her fight against injustice, in the hope that Khalil’s murderer will receive the proper sentence. Thomas doesn’t completely distance Starr from the police force, and demonstrates through her Uncle Carlos that not all officers are corrupt. Based on true events that took place during her life, Thomas writes from the heart. Thomas seamlessly writes about and analyses the complexities of race in America. Despite being quite confronting at times, the importance of this book lies in its authenticity and honesty. As Starr states in the end, this fight is not just for Khalil or her family, but for others, including Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland and many more. If you don’t know who these people are, do your research. If you’re going to read one book in 2017, make it this book. Stay woke.


JESS

SILVER STARS (SOLDIER GIRLS BOOK 2) BY MICHEAL GRANT – $19.99 (EGMONT BOOKS)

Young Adult

Michael Grant has been in my top five favourite authors ever since I first cracked open the first book in his “Gone” series. I instantly became hooked on his writing style, action-violence, and the complex relationships between the characters.
These qualities are definitely evident in his new book “Silver Stars.”
This book follows from the first book in the series “Frontlines”. It is set at the time of World War Two and follows the lives of American soldiers as they fight Nazis and attempt to stay alive. Except the book is set in a world where women are, just recently, allowed and enforced to fight in the war alongside men.
Continuing on from book one, the anonymous narrator still focuses on the struggles and experiences of Private Rio, Medic Frangie, and Sergeant Rainy.
Rio has moved from North Africa into the heart of Italy to re-claim territory and defend borders to prevent German expansion. We see her come to terms with loss of both allies and enemies, as well as the change in her own moral outlook. She becomes an interesting character as she is increasingly hardened by the experiences she faces on the frontline.
Frangie faces daily discrimination for being both a woman and a coloured medic. Grant perfectly highlights the racism of the times and creates a segregated community and battle front. Frangie is constantly tested in her profession as she witnesses the horrors of war and the damages it can permanently do to the human body.
In contrast Rainy is seen doing something different, she becomes almost the central character of this book as we see her negotiate with gangsters, travel to Italy, and survive the Gestapo’s cruel methods.
The historical information within this novel has obviously been well researched. There is a realistic quality to the novel, with both the racism and the events or battles that take place. This stretched historical setting causes the book to be really fascinating and a captivating read.
Michael Grant has once again created a magnificent world featuring complex characters and exciting action-adventures.


Greer

THE BEAR AND THE NIGHTINGALE BY KATHERINE ARDEN – $32.99 (RANDOM HOUSE)

ADULT FICTION

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden is a gorgeously atmospheric historical fantasy set on the edge of a Russian forest. Although it is adult fiction, what I loved about this book is that it captures the spirit of a fairy tale, albeit in a much grittier and more complex way than in childhood stories.
Vasya is a girl living the harsh life of the youngest of five children in a small Russian village. Her mother, who passed away in childbirth, is whispered to have had the blood of a witch. Her family suspects Vasya has inherited that witchery as well. As Vasya grows older she realises that although everyone else leaves offerings for demons – household protectors, forest spirits and guardians of horses – they cannot actually see them, while she can. It turns out that only her step-mother can see these spirits as well, and is driven mad by them. A newcomer to the village, a mysterious priest with his own agenda, begins the crusade against the pagan traditions which have been keeping the household and nature spirits alive. This sets in motion a battle between good and evil which holds Vasya at its centre.
Vasya is an incredibly likable protagonist. Another character in the book describes her as “too brave,” which I think sums her up well. She rebels against the oppressive expectations of her as a woman and will do anything for her family.  The family relationships themselves are wonderfully realistic and well-developed – we get a real sense of their love for each other without any sentimentality. The fantasy elements are also executed really well – they’re interwoven subtly with the “everyday life” and are almost dream-like, rather than being glaringly obvious.
Even though I was reading this during a warm March, this book enveloped me in a feeling of wintriness and magic. This is set to be the first in a series, and I’m certainly looking forward to the sequel.


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