Staff picks – May 2016

May 2016


The Last Painting of Sara De Vos by Dominic Smith $32.99rrp

This novel really swept me away, the descriptive writing was so evocative of the three time periods; 1950s Manhattan, 1631 Holland and present day Sydney. And best of all the switches are not confusing or jarring. You get drawn into the stories of the female Dutch painter Sara de Vos, a rare thing in the Golden Age who paints to make money for her family even after her husband (also an artist) has abandoned her including the painting, At the Edge of a Wood. These sections really struck a chord for their atmosphere and frustrations, conjuring the same love I’ve had for other great historical novels such as The Anchoress, Wolf Winter, The Word in my Hand or Burial Rites.
The effortless shifts to the more modern sections have us meet an inheritor of the work, Marty deGroot and an Aussie female art student,Ellie Shipley, who later becomes a celebrated art historian. Ellie’s decision to paint a forgery of the rare De Vos work in her youth haunts her for the rest of her life but it is seeing how the past and present become intertwined that really delights. Guilt, talent and wealth consume both Ellie and deGroot and for very different reasons. There are shock plot twists and revelations which keep the story moving and compelling so that when you close the last page you feel as though you have been on an immense journey together with all three of the protagonists even though time separated them. The ending (so often done badly) was sublimely appropriate.
I was lucky enough to meet author and ex pat Australian (now residing in Texas), Dominic Smith this year and hear about his interest and incredible research behind art forgeries. How this transpires into the novel is really well done, and not at all dull as you would think – think how connected you got to the art world in The Goldfinch and you will see why there has been comparisons made to that Pulitzer winning novel by Donna Tartt. Smith has effortlessly created a world that intrigues, and most of all makes you feel sad for all the unrecognised work of female artists through history, especially when you realise so much of Sara DeVos relates to real women from the time who were ignored but hopefully are regaining their place in the art world now. It enveloped me in all its worlds, and I’m glad it did.


Ghostworks Book 1 by James Lee $9.99rrp

Ghostworks is a new series by James Lee with 4 books out this month with really cool enticing covers. Each book contains two novellas, and is best suited for fans of Goosebumps which has reignited fans all over due to the recent Jack Black film. The first story, The Graves of Casper Weavell follows three kids, Noah, his girlfriend Zoe and his friend Jason who love tracing the history of dead people they find on gravestones in a nearby cemetery. And of course with a setting like this spooky stuff is bound to happen!
The second story, Haunted Hoarder we learn that Fiona’s Aunt, who was also a hoarder, has recently died. But all is not as it seems as noises abound, shadows lurk and it ends up being a fight for their lives.
Perfect for those who like their adventures short, sharp, and creepy these two different stories focus heavily on action and not on overwhelming character development which makes it suitable for 9+ or older reluctant readers.


An Isolated Incident by Emily Maguire $32.99rrp

Chris is a barmaid at the local pub in Strathdee. When her much younger sister Bella is brutally murdered, Chris must deal with the investigation and the media while handling her grief in full view of all around her. May is a journalist sent to follow the story, trying to insert herself into the town in order to get the ‘story’.
Based on the blurb, I waded into An Isolated Incident with an expectation of dark, thrilling, Australian writing – in many ways, that’s what I got –but An Isolated Incident is more than that. Maguire challenges what you expect of the narrative. I constantly expected the story to go in one direction, and it would go in another. I’d expect a character to behave a certain way, and they’d surprise me. I was always ready for the book to become a crime narrative, or a twisty-turny ‘whodunit’ – but it never went there, and the story still had me hooked. Chris is a flawed but very believable character. Her reactions and relationships ring true, nothing felt contrived. May channels the authors experience and shows heart that the public forgets that journalists share. The isolation of a small town – where everyone knows everyone – bleeds through the pages and paranoia is hangs in the air throughout. This book got to me, and stayed with me.


Fellside by Mike Carey $29.99rrp (out April 12)

I was a big fan of Mike Carey’s The Girl With All the Gifts and have been anticipating another novel from this writer since I read Girl… back at the end of 2013 – go to Goodreads and you’ll find I’m in the top 5 most liked reviews for that book. I wasn’t a zombie fan, but I was entirely engrossed in it because of the complex characters (a film adaptation will be out later this year). Then I learnt about Fellside… cue excitement.
Jessica Moulson is sent to Fellside, a prison for women, guilty of murdering her ten-year-old upstairs neighbour Alex, a consequence of taking heroin. But within the chaos and madness, the hierarchical structures and claustrophobic nature of the prison, the ghost of Alex awaits her, with one last ask before he moves on.
Unlike The Girl With All the GIfts I wasn’t hooked from the get-go – only over halfway was I caught. Carey really goes the thriller path, gradually delving more and more into the character of Jessica and her inmates; but in doing so I lost interest many times due to the pacing, making the read a lot slower than it should have been. Fellside reminded me very much of ‘Orange is the New Black’, just with a darker tone. It’s not Stephen King horror, but a paranormal thriller worth reading for the characters alone.
And what Mike Carey really gets right are the dynamics between a group of complexly different characters within a story. Setting Fellside in a prison provided Carey with many opportunities to showcase this skill of his. As someone who places character before story, Mike Carey will keep me coming back for more.


Flight of Dreams by Ariel Lawhon $29.99rrp 

In Flight of Dreams, author Ariel Lawhon describes the interconnecting stories of various crew members and passengers aboard the airship Hindenburg on its final voyage in May 1937. This book vividly reminds me of James Cameron’s Titanic, as it has the same level of love, intrigue and betrayal. The difference between the two, however, is that Flight of Dreams also abounds in mystery and murder.
At this point, it is worth noting that Lawhon’s characters bear the real names and occupations of people who were actually aboard this flight in May 1937. Some survived the disaster, some did not. However, this book is unquestionably a work of historical fiction, as we cannot be sure how these people really were in life.
I will admit, however, that this book did take me a little while to fully engage in, and I often found it alternating between very slow parts and fast-paced, gripping action. But Lawhon has crafted incredibly colourful and real characters in this book. Each had their own individual and distinctive voice, and I developed a real connection to each of them. Besides there being five main voices in this book, there are also a slew of other characters. This made keeping track of names and purposes extremely difficult in the beginning. But the strength was that the connection to the main characters enabled Lawhon to completely toy with my emotions throughout the book, culminating in an incredibly bittersweet ending.


Beloved Poison by E S Thompson $29.99rrp

This book delves into the Victorian era’s medical practice and questions the morality of the duties upheld by doctors in those time. Set in a decomposing London hospital, the book narrates the life of Jem Flockhart, a women trapped in a world where she is forced to dress and become a male in order to gain reputation and the inheritance of her father.
Throughout the book we witness medical practices that rival the inhumane and immoral tasks performed by Mary Shelley’s Dr Frankenstein. Not only this but when six ghastly and creepy miniature coffins are discovered, the hospital of St Saviour’s is thrown into chaos; resulting in a numerous of deaths. It is up to “Mr” Flockhart to discover the murderer and put an end to the unnecessary bloodshed.
The book seems to be a mix of the gothic classic “Frankenstein” and murder mystery of “Sherlock Homes”, it depicts in-depth historical details that illustrate the medieval medical practices perfectly. The dark and deathly setting places the book in a constant state of suspense and leaves the reader unable to put the book down.
I absolutely loved this book, following the life of Jem Flockhart, extending to her conflictions with her identity and confusion of her own sexuality, was a fascinating and thrilling journey. She attempts to do the right thing while trying to be aloof and uninterested; it’s not until her inner stone walls collapse that we begin to understand that she has layers of complex emotions, expectations, and motives.
A fascinating read delving into the world of medieval medical practice and a murder mystery that surrounds the falling-apart hospital.


Yassmin’s Story: Who Do You Think I Am? by Yasmin Abdel-Magied $34.99rrp
ADULT BIOGRAPHY (but okay for teens)

After seeing Yassmin on Q&A and listening to her on Triple J’s ‘Hack’ program, I was really excited to hear that she was releasing a book. Yassmin is an extremely interesting person. She works as a mechanical engineer, is a practicing Muslim woman and is even the founder of a youth-led organisation. Yassmin offers a unique perspective on growing up in Australia, with her family migrating from Sudan when she was just a child. She speaks of those who empower her, and has written a witty, feel-good novel.
This book is a nice, easy read, but at the same time, it also urges the reader to think about wider issues in society that concern us all. I highly recommend this for those who want to read something a little different; it is truly a breath of fresh air!

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