Staff picks – May 2018

May 2018

NATASHA

THE JADE LILY BY KIRSTY MANNING – ALLEN AND UNWIN, ADULT FICTION $32.99

Kirsty Manning’s second novel, The Jade Lily totally swept me away and revealed the little known experience of  European Jewish refugees seeking safety in Shanghai during WWII. Given the plethora of war based fiction out there, it’s amazing to think there could be a fresh take on this time period, but Manning’s research and unique storytelling exploration has done just that. Like her debut novel, The Midsummer Garden, Manning again uses the dual time structure to slowly unfurl a family mystery across the decades. This time we travel from 1930s Vienna and wartime Shanghai to modern day Melbourne and Shanghai. Careful attention to plotting and pacing is evident, yet it is the strength and complexity of the characters and the sumptuous descriptions of place and culture that really hold your attention and awe.
In 2016 Melbourne, we meet Alexandra and her grandmother Romy and “aunt” Nina grieving the passing of patriarch grandfather Wilhelm. She is inspired to learn more about her familial roots in Shanghai when she accepts a financial broking job there as her mother Sophia was half Chinese and knows she was ‘adopted’ by Romy and Wilhelm in the post war period. Once there, she meets enigmatic Zhang who helps her on her quest which reveals forgeries, secrets and more questions at first than answers. The seeds of a growing romance bloom as Zhang slowly melts her heart to the possibility that love and peace could be for her after a previous heartbreak and that there is more to life than work and money deals.
Juxtaposed with the contemporary chapters we learn about young intelligent Romy, fleeing war-torn Europe with her parents (the Bernfelds) and arriving as refugees in China as they were one of very few countries who did not require a visa in wartime (not even Australia). As the war deepens, and the Japanese increase their presence in Shanghai, life becomes more difficult for young Romy’s family, her friend Nina, local friends the Ho family – especially her good friend the beautiful and aspiring singer Li, and loyal brother Jian, as well as the large brood of the Lams who agree to take in the Bernfelds when all refugees have to move into a small ghetto area.
Yet whilst this novel seems large in scope with these epic wartime events, the best aspects are the intimate descriptions, perhaps moreso in the historical sections, that transport you to truly see, smell and understand this unfamiliar time and place of Shanghai as the “Paris of the East’ with its Eastern medicine customs, glamourous parties in art deco buildings and decadent food alongside the starving locals. These intricate details connect beautifully with the contemporary passages for example when Alexandra drinks healing chrysanthemum tea, walks and breathes in street stall smells, and learns Chinese terms like yuanfen (fateful coincidence) like her grandmother before her. To be completely honest, I was totally salivating every time Alexandra or Romy described the Chinese dumplings, bread and broths. Moreover, the caring friendship of spirited Romy and Nina and Li really got under my skin, and was further heightened with the inclusion of Jian and young Wilhelm. They all aspire to different things but the latter years of war make life tough, and tears them apart with devastating consequences. The scenes of poverty, bombing and entrapment were all heartbreaking and capture the danger and difficulty of young people, especially women, in occupied territories no matter their nationality/religion. How they cope with these situations is truly remarkable.
As the novel progresses, the two stories start to draw closer together but Manning’s skill is in keeping a few twists up her sleeve for the final quarter of the book that suitably bring the novel to a really surprising yet pleasing conclusion. And whilst I enjoyed her debut last year, there is a maturity in Manning’s writing and structure of this work, a real layering of characters that I thoroughly loved and exploration of events that was most illuminating and rewarding. This story totally transports you with its fascinating historical and cultural descriptions that were incredibly moving at times with characters you care about and want to see how it all ties together and ends.


BRAIDEN

THE YELLOW HOUSE BY EMILY O’GRADY – PENGUIN, ADULT FICTION $29.99

Australian rural crime just cannot be contained, particularly those tales with immense psychological underpinnings. They’re evocative and bona fide, tense and consuming. A handful of these sorts of stories have been published in recent years to rabid response and Emily O’Grady’s The Yellow House, the winner of the 2018 Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award, will hopefully be their successor.
What sustained my attention the most with The Yellow House, and which will make O’Grady’s debut excellent for fans of Craig Silvey’s Jasper Jones and even Mark Brandi’s Wimmera, is that we as the reader become increasingly more curious about this family’s mysterious and supposedly violent past through the eyes of 10-year-old Cub, a young girl most affected by her family’s legacy. While trying to find her place in the world Cub is also constantly ostracised and belittled, a byproduct of her family’s struggles to cope with the rumours and hostile attitudes inflicted on them by residents of their town.
If you love Scout Finch, you’ll love Cub, innocent and curious, feral but loving. Emily O’Grady has nailed the characterisation of kids just being kids yet dealing with the horrors beyond most people’s understanding. You feel incredible empathy for her, and eventually for her older brother Cassie too, a teenage boy caught in the web of toxic masculine culture battling to keep his siblings safe. A strong debut and a deserving winner.


STEPH

THE WICKED DEEP BY SHEA ERNSHAW- SIMON & SCHUSTER, TEEN $17.99

Judging this book solely by its beautiful cover, I decided to pick it up and start reading. Shea Ernshaw’s The Wicked Deep focuses on the town of Sparrow who, two centuries ago sentenced three sisters to death after accusing them of witchcraft. Now, many decades later, the sisters still return each summer to enact their revenge on the town. They steal the bodies of three girls and seek their retribution by dragging boys to their watery deaths. The narrative focuses on Penny Talbot, a seventeen year old local who is all too familiar with the practice and how it affects their town year after year. The unexpected arrival of Bo Carter on the eve of the sisters’ return changes everything, as Penny desperately tries to protect this outsider from the danger that lies ahead. Who is Bo Carter? Why does she struggle to learn anything about him? Penny can see something others can’t and the secrets she keeps are bound to land either her or Bo in trouble, but who will it be? What does Penny know?
The detailed description of the setting and the mysterious events that take place in the narrative had me hooked. I like the way the author goes back and fourth, recounting the past and staying in the present. I’ve always been interested in the history of witchery, and this book really sparked my curiosity.  The Wicked Deep is a unique and gripping story for all to enjoy. 13+


JESS

MY MOTHER, A SERIAL KILLER BY HAZEL BARON AND JANET FIFE-YEOMANS – HARPER COLLLINS, ADULT FICTION $32.99RRP

I have always been interested in serial killers in that weirdly fascinated way. I can’t wrap my head around what drives a person to murdering multiple people with little motive. That’s what drew me in to the story of Dulcie Bodsworth. Written from the perspective of her daughter, Hazel, we see the adult life of Dulcie span, her movements, and what led to her murdering.
I don’t like Dulcie, not just because she was a murderer, but because of how selfish and manipulative she is. She terrifies her children, wrapping them tightly around her puppet-master fingers. Dulcie never outwardly showed remorse, or was inclined to change her opinions or behaviour. But her story was fascinating, she lived in a wholly different area and way of life to me; constantly on the moving and never settling down.
It was interesting to see how the children grew up in this lifestyle, how they evolved into adults and how they were permanently plagued by their mother.
I absolutely loved how this was written, with additional information mentioned on almost every person mentioned within the narrative. To the police officers’ future accomplishments, similar serial killers, the history of murderers being imprisoned in Australia, as well as snippets of extra information; such as the fact that Dulcie’s life influenced a character in the television series Prisoner.
An interesting tale about an unlikely murderer and the brave daughter that eventually turned her in.


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