You Will Be Safe Here by Damian Barr

DamianI had no idea that concentration camps existed during the Boer Wars in South Africa, I had no idea that so many people had been mistreated and ruined at that time, people who were just living their lives and struggling in a harsh environment. In the first section of the book we meet Sarah, struggling to cope as she is interred with her young son into a concentration camp run by the British, her husband is off fighting and their farm has been razed to the ground as part of the scorched earth policy. Sarah is the first link in the chain of this story which travels through time in South Africa from then to 2015. The characters are all linked by family lines and their stories all show something of how the history of a country forms attitudes and social norms all the way through to now. Sarah’s diary of her time in Bloemfontein Camp is horrific, so much so that I wandered off to search for confirmation of the conditions and discovered the most ghastly photographs.

Many years later we meet Rayna and Irma and Willem, Sarah’s descendants in a new South Africa, where the laws have changed, where violence is increasing and where social order has been disrupted. Not everyone is comfortable with the new ways, the abolition of Apartheid and the changing expectations of how the black people are to be treated. The uncomfortable transition to equality is hard to read. The author has done a wonderful job of making you feel every side of the situation. He drew me into the characters world and made me understand their points of view, although it is uncomfortable reading at times, it is hard to deal with such views from this corner of the world. The creeping menace of the ever growing walls to keep the bad guys out, at the same time as keeping the world and your connection to it out.

Willem is so beautifully written, his fragility and sensitivity juxtaposed against his mother’s partner the awful Jans. Willem’s mother Irma, torn between the new bloke in her life and her son who she doesn’t really understand and whom to her mind seems to be lacking something. Thank goodness for Rayna, the grandmother who loves this sensitive boy sincerely, and who ultimately is his saviour. “Know, she didn’t know. No, she didn’t know. Know, if only she’d known.”

This book is a lot! There is so much depth, it has the most beautiful moments amongst the heartbreak and terror. Along the reading journey with this book, not only the terrible history of torture and struggle, I’ve thought about Willem and the others like him, struggling in a harsh society, the terror of their lives, the fear and the trying not to be noticed. The pain of knowing you don’t quite fit with everyone else and trying to disappear. All of this is written so beautifully. I’ll be thinking about this novel for a long time, my poor heart will need to recover.

Bravo Damian, you’ve written a gem of a book and I am so delighted about that as a reader and as a cheerleader.

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Lenny’s Book of Everything by Karen Foxlee

LennyWhere is that 6th star? I need it to rate this book! I’ve bought a copy for myself and two copies for school, this is one of the most beautiful, sobbing into my nightie in the middle of the night sad, can’t stop reading books I’ve ever read. What a treasure this is. From the moment you meet Lennie and Davey you will be swept up in their hilarious imaginations and you’ll want to keep them with you as you go about your days until you head to bed early so that you can get back to them.

Lenny’s little brother Davey was born normal even though his Mum had a weird feeling that something was going to happen. Lenny and Davey’s Dad has gone off and nobody has seen or heard from him, their Mum works hard to try and make ends meet. They don’t have much but they are happy in their world with their neighbours who care and the excitement that their Mum winning a set of encyclopaedias brings. Both Davey and Lenny are desperate for knowledge about the world and about everything in it and they pour over the encyclopaedia entries for hours. Lenny is particularly fond of the bug entries, she intends to study beetles when she grows up, Davey is keen on rivers and log cabins and exploring the wilds of Canada. During the times when their mum is at work the children are cared for by Mrs Gaspar their neighbour, she who smokes too much, gasps for breath often and who has very entertaining dreams which she tells them about in great detail. It is a simple and happy life.

One day when Davey is 5 he starts to grow, at an extraordinary rate, he shoots up and up at amazing speed, an inch a night sometimes. On the outside he becomes as tall as a man but on the inside he is just a small child. It is weird. Eventually he is taken to a specialist and I cannot say more here.

I see that lots of people consider this a book for children. I don’t believe that this is so. This is a book for everyone, it is so full of heart and comfort. The writing is stellar and the way that the author has made a world with few characters and places but which feels so big and real is perfect. I was so drawn into this book that I was sobbing those big messy sobs with the catch in them, the ones where you need 3 breaths to complete the sob, the ones where your partner comes rushing in to see what is wrong and then goes “oh, sad book huh?”, and leaves you to it. This is now officially my book of the year. I might have to go back and read it again.

 

Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

CRAA fluffy cloud of funny romantic froth! This is not my usual sort of book but having seen the shorts of the movie and thought it cute, I wanted to find out more. At the same time one of the Yr 10s at my all boys school asked me to buy it for the library and I was all YES!!! So, I gave it a spin and I loved it. So much fun, so many designer labels, so many witty one liners and a really good fun read.

It is the story of Nick and Rachel who meet and fall in love. Nick decides they should go on holiday in his home of Singapore. What he neglects to tell Rachel, an eminently sensible, intelligent and practical young woman, is that he comes from one of the richest families in Singapore and that the wedding they are attending while there, of Nick’s best friend, is the wedding of the decade! Rachel finds herself swept into a world she has no idea about, she is aghast at the wealth she sees and simply cannot believe that this extreme wealth is normal for her lovely boyfriend. She discovers the terrible rich bitch girls and finds unexpected kindness in the form of Nick’s cousins Astrid and Sophie.

There is also the story of Rachel’s background, her Mum’s sad experiences as a young woman and the struggle she had to keep Rachel from finding out the truth about these.

This is just perfect as a book to read as an escape from some of the sad books that are around at the moment, it is a perfect escape book. I thoroughly enjoyed it as a change from the usual.   Click this link to see the movie trailer.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZQ-YX-5bAs0

Less by Andrew Sean Greer

lessArthur Less is one of those endearingly frustrating men, he cruises along, not being anything in particular and stuff happens to him. Usually really good stuff. He is ageing and starting to feel his mortality, he has gone from being the slightly shy and aloof person that people notice to being largely ignored. His latest novel has been rejected and he is hurt and lonely. He makes the impulsive decision to head off to a bunch of events in different countries in order to avoid attending his ex partner’s wedding. So we follow Arthur to these locations as he missteps and bumbles his way about. It sounds vacuous, but the writing is so sparkling and it is so wryly funny that I was drawn in immediately and loved this book.

The story is not the thing in this book, it is the atmosphere the author creates, the way that Arthur looks back on what has happened to him, the role he played in the lives of others, his perspective on his life, what the relationships he had have meant to him and where he is now. He is getting old, his life seems to have no substance and he is floundering. He is a kind of bumbling fool, someone who never makes a decision, someone who drifts and this is the charm of the book. Gentle and sweet and sad and lovely, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. I loved the feeling of it, a flight of fancy and something lovely to spend time with.

Broken Ground by Val McDermid

brokenI had so wanted this to be great but is was only ok. I like Karen Pirie and have read a few of these books in the past and thought them pretty good. I’m a died in the wool Val McDermid fan and always want them to be amazing and she usually delivers. This one wasn’t my fave though, I loved the start, and thought the whole idea of burying motorcycles so that they could later be retrieved after the war and sold, was cool. Then they find a body buried with the bikes and Karen and her team enter to investigate this historic murder. Unfortunately Karen is grieving her partner, her boss hates her and is setting her up to fail. That isn’t good but then Karen goes on dates with one of the suspects and generally behaves in a way that I found unrealistic and the story just plods along. We get bogged down in the drama between Karen and her boss, the spy who is infiltrating Karen’s team and the detail of the investigation, so much detail, so slow to move along.

I got frustrated with Karen, need the story to get moving and just struggled through it. I was helped by a plane journey which meant I got stuck into it in the end but it seldom takes me so long to finish a book. I do however look forward to a new Val and hope for one that is a bit more exciting.

Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for giving me access to this book.

Otherearth by Jason Segel and Kirsten Miller

OtherearthSo disappointed. I really enjoyed Otherworld and it does brisk business with my students at school, especially the gamers who like the concept. This one however just didn’t reach the same heights. I was confused, bogged down, irritated all the time I was plodding through this. It felt like one of those books which goes “well this happened, then this happened and now this other thing is going to happen” it was also the victim of one of my pet hates in a story, “he said/she said” constantly to the point of real irritation.

Thanks Netgalley and the publisher for the opportunity. Sadly this one wasn’t great for me.

The Strange Fascinations of Noah Hypnotic by David Arnold

noahReasons to read this book:
The writing: David Arnold completely nails current teen speak. It feels authentic and on point. It feels like he is inside Noah’s mind, with all the fixations and drama of being a teenager, using the internet to answer the big questions, being obsessed with books and music of particular artists especially Bowie, but comic book culture and movies. Remembering phrases from these and quoting from them all the time. There are so many quotable passages in this book, some that make you stop and ponder and want to write them down.
The Relationships: Noah, Alan and Val are such individuals, those of us who work in high schools know these kids. They stand out and are unafraid to be who they are. Noah’s sister Penny is wonderful, a great anchor for the family life with the crazy uncle, the unusual parents and the whole back story of their lives.
The angst: I love how Noah’s sporting life is handled, his injury and the guilt it induces even though the lie is perpetuated despite the bad feelings.
The goodness: This book has so much to offer in the way it deals with kindness and concern, not just for the people Noah knows but with the relationship he forms with an elderly man and his eventual understanding of the way his weird uncle behaves. Noah is eventually wise to how others feel and perceive him and I really liked that growth.

Yes this is thoroughly weird in some ways, but it is a novel which is so relatable and genuinely goodhearted, it made me smile often and it made me think. In YA fiction that is what I’m after. I want to offer my kids books which are different and not cookie cutter and this book is certainly that. All the kids I’ve talked to about this book are keen to get their hands on it and that is a great sign. Give it to your John Green and Rainbow Rowell fans. Give it to those who want to read something real and unfettered. They’ll thank you for it.