THE CHOICE by Edith Eger

Ordinary lives destroyed by wars, man's inhumanity and incomprehensible cruelty to their fellows. Again and again we read harrowing and horrific accounts of the ordeals that people go through when their country, their city, their home is invaded. And yet people survive all this, be it 99% luck and 1% willpower, or some other distorted ratio, not everyone dies. You wonder would yourself survive? How would you? Would you want to? And what happens after, why did you survive and not someone else, how do you manage to keep on living, find a new life, start again when all around you, people and places are broken?

Well, you have a choice. Edith Eger is now 89 years old. A Hungarian Jew, in 1944 when she was 16, she and her family were packed off to Auschwitz, all her choices taken away from her, other than the decision to live. Her mother's last words of, “Just remember,” she says, “no one can take away from you what you’ve put in your mind.”, and this is what keeps her spirit alive.  As a talented gymnast and dancer, she goes deep inside herself to cope with the appalling horror going on around her, the absolute randomness of life and death. She and her sister miraculously survive their one year of horror;  their survivals are a miracle, the two of them pulled out of a pile of dead, Edith with a broken back and typhus, amongst other health issues.

But the biggest scars are of course psychological. It takes a long time, and Edith is wonderfully open and candid about the struggle both mentally and emotionally. She marries a fellow survivor, they have children, they flee Hungary, they move to America. Life is not easy, they are immigrants, they have few skills, but eventually they make a comfortable life for themselves. All the time, however, she is tormented. One of the reasons she goes to college as an adult student is to try to make sense of herself, and also try to help others. Which she achieves most magnificently, becoming an eminent psychologist, opening her own practice, and still practising today. Her success has rested on her exceptional ability, through her own traumatic experiences, to unlock the trauma, the conflict, the reasons for her patients being in the state they are in, and then  helping them fix it. She is big on how we allow ourselves to become victims of our pasts, how we let the victimisation we suffered or experienced actually turn us into victims. And how we can let go of all that, and become the best person we can be. Through her helping others, she has also healed herself. 

This book is both a very powerful memoir, and a lesson for living, helping find the essence of our ourselves that is locked inside of us. We do have choices in how we respond to adversity, to times of stress, how we behave in our relationships with those close to us. This is not a self-help guide to becoming a better person, but a most generously shared and intimate account of just one person's journey back to self-acceptance and self-love. 

THE DAY OF THE JACKEL by Frederick Forsyth

Just goes to prove that old books don't die, they may go to the back of the shelf for years, as in 30 plus, but one day, the urge to re-read resurfaces, and it is just as a thrilling, gripping and page turning ride as it was when I read this as a teenager. And I know I was a teenager, because the date I bought it is in the front cover. A few months I ago I read Frederick Forsyth's memoir of his life, which is what made me pull the novel out of the shelf. Forsyth has lived an amazing life, and I loved his stories, probably embellished, his very engaging way of telling them, all highly entertaining. His three most successful novels, including this one, relied heavily on his post war experiences in Europe and Africa, with many of those stories and escapades told in his memoir.

And this, his first novel, is an absolute cracker. As fresh and relevant now as it was when first published in 1971 (before I was a teenager). I have since watched the movie made in 1973, also excellent and highly entertaining. It moves a little more slowly than action thrillers of today, but as a result you have time to closely observe the fashions, the cars, the much less crowded cities of Paris, Rome, London, the meticulous detail and care the Jackal takes in his work. The book is exactly the same - measured, well thought out, but not too slow, precise in its language, action and characters. It doesn't have all the whizz bang gadgetry and technology of today's movies, books and TV programmes. It has dial telephones, phone boxes, filing cabinets and boxes filled with millions of cards and papers that are manually sorted, huge ledgers and journals that again are methodically gone through page by page. Meetings take place around a table, not via video conferencing. Despite the lack of the latest whatever, this novel has not dated a scrap, and I loved reading it again.

The story is well known I am sure. Set in 1962, President De Gaulle of France has made many enemies over the years, including those who feel betrayed by De Gaulle's decision to give Algeria its independence. An assassin is hired, the Jackal, nameless, stateless, faceless, paid the laughable sum of USD$500,000. Half now, half on completion - he would never need to work again! Fancy that. Will he be able to retire in style, or will diligent detective work by the French get their man and save De Gaulle's life? Fantastic Stuff. 

THE WOOLGROWER'S COMPANION by Joy Rhoades

I think of Tim Winton when reading Australian writing that so lovingly and eloquently features the landscape of Australia as a backdrop to the narrative. He is the master of making the landscape as much of a character in his novels as the people, and this author has done a very job too in this novel. We generally think of the landscape as being dry, featureless, huge, flat stretches of sameness for kilometres and kilometres. Water, or the lack of, is a predominant theme, as are huge sheep stations, remote, isolated. Those that live and work on them a particular breed of tough person.  A life not for the faint hearted.

As in many countries during WWII, with communities and families depleted of their manpower, it was the women who held things together, doing 'man' jobs, managing finances, keeping everything going and in order. In this novel, Kate is a young woman living on her father's sheep station. She has recently married a soldier, mainly to satisfy her dying mother's wishes, but he is away. Her father, a returned WWI soldier, owns and runs the station, but it is increasingly apparent that he is suffering from some sort of mental illness, and unable to manage the farm the way it needs. Kate finds the farm is on the brink of being foreclosed on by the local bank, thanks to her father having made some unexplained spending. Kate also finds that she has to also manage two Italian POWs who have been allocated to the farm, a farm manager who does not take lightly to having a young woman tell her what to do, a young boy who is the nephew of the manager, and her housemaid, Daisy. Daisy is a 14 year old half caste Aboriginal girl under state care as all half caste children were at this time.

This is a huge amount for Kate to take on board, with few skills in farm, land and sheep management, let alone people management to help her out. She does however have great instincts and intuition, guts, and a good brain, just showing it's not what you know, but how you behave that is the true essence of success and character. Plus she has The Woolgrower's Companion, which she finds one day in her father's  office. The land and the weather, the lack of rain,  the wind, totally dominate the day to day lives of those on the farm and in the local community. The stress and tension of daily life in such an environment is present on almost every page, you almost want to be drinking a beer in sympathy.

The author's grandmother grew up on a station similar to the one in this novel, giving the author plenty of material to play around with in crafting her story. Kate is a great character, as are the two POWs, both very different men, who have little understanding of how and why they have ended up in Australia after being captured in Italy simply defending their country. There is a sort of love story between Kate and Luca, but of course Kate is still married to Jack. I love how Kate evolves in her marriage to Jack over the course of the book, as relevant today as it was 70 plus years ago.

What is not so relevant is how the Aboriginal people are treated and viewed by the largely white population, especially in rural areas where communities were much more conservative.  As we know this is an ulcerating sore on the hide of Australia, with still many unresolved social and economic issues. It is truly appalling how Daisy and her family were treated, how anyone of Aboriginal descent was viewed, although if you looked more white than dark, then your path was considerably easier.

I really liked this novel, and although the ending came without everything being neatly and tidily resolved - very annoying - it does leave things open for a sequel. Plus it would make a great TV drama. 

BABY by Annaleese Jochems

Wow, what an amazing talent this young woman is. All of 23 years of age, there is both an urgency and energy to her writing way beyond her youth. Her insight into how social media, celebrity culture, the culture of 'me', and how the resultant obsession with self has manipulated her generation of young people is spectacular. The result is a monster of a young woman, the 21 year old Cynthia, whose life and existence is completely dominated by her dangerously self absorbed, meaningless and boring existence.

This novel is well and truly a modern urban cautionary fable, about that privileged and over indulged generation us oldies like to call entitled, how their perception of self is so out of whack, and the consequences when it all goes wrong. A total nut job. I have already admitted I am the wrong demographic for this novel, even though I get what is going on (I think), but my 20 year old daughter, clearly of the same demographic as Cynthia and the author thought the book way too weird to continue reading. I wouldn't go so far as to say it is weird, but it is certainly disturbing.

Cynthia has a life of nothing. She has been to university, although it is not clear if she completed her degree or dropped out. She has no job, lives at her father's home, a man who appears to be both physically and emotionally absent, but he does have a great bank balance, spends all her time on her phone, watching movies, playing with her dog Snot-head (who calls their dog such a name?) and doing yoga. Anahera is the yoga instructor, a slightly older woman, with whom Cynthia becomes obsessed. When Anahera turns up on her doorstep claiming she has left her husband, the madness begins. After raiding her father's bank account, they drive off to Paihia, where absurdly, they purchase a boat called Baby, living on it just off the shore of Paihia beach.

Talk about cabin fever. As the days pass, and with no fixed plan of action, they begin to run out of money, Snot-head does not take well to marine life, Anahera remains disturbingly elusive, wanting to spend all her time swimming from the boat to an off shore island. Their random existence leads them to random encounters with others, none of which end well, Cynthia increasingly out of touch with reality, out of control with her emotions and actions.

So a bizarre plot with not a single likeable or even relatable character. All using each other for their own ends, the lines of communication and connection are constantly twisted and warped. The novel is narrated entirely from Cynthia's self-absorbed perspective, so cleverly we get to find out very little about the other characters and what is going on in their minds with the strange set up they find themselves in.

I wouldn't say I enjoyed this book, some very strange and disturbing stuff goes on. But as an insight into the over stimulated mind of a young person it is extraordinary. As is the quality of the writing, the low level tension held through out, beginning with the first line - "Cynthia can understand how Anahera feels just by looking at her body.", to the last paragraph - "For now, she shifts her head from one side to the other, resting it. Time passes and the trees are silent. A small winged bug lands on her wrist then flies away. She doesn't notice." This is an amazing new voice in NZ writing, we should treasure and nurture her, she will go onto great things. 

THE GUSTAV SONATA by Rose Tremain

I admit now, before going any further, I am a fan of whatever Rose Tremain writes. She is a marvel, walking the fine line between consummate story teller, and restrained, elegant, divine writing. Nothing is revealed too soon, but just enough from the beginning to set the tone, begin a story, beguile the reader with intriguing characters and behaviours. She writes with affection, not just of her story line, but her characters, the moral and ethical dilemmas they find themselves in, she creates real human beings, throwing life's troubles in front of them. I just love her work.

This latest novel is no different. Another reviewer made the wonderful observation that the book is composed in three parts, much like a musical sonata. And music features heavily in this novel. The first part begins in 1947, introducing Gustav, a five year old boy living in near poverty with his unhappy, unpleasant, non-maternal and morose mother Emilie in a small town in Switzerland. We have little knowledge of Emilie's circumstances and why there is no Dad on the scene. Gustav starts school, and meets Anton, a new comer to the area, shy, bit different from the other boys. Gustav and Anton develop a most unlikely friendship, Gustav being introduced and taken under the wing of Anton's wealthy parents. Anton is a very talented pianist, Gustav developing a great love of listening to Anton practise.

Anton's family is Jewish, upsetting Emilie who is anti-Semite, the significance and reason for becoming apparent in the second part of the book. This second part tells the story of the years before Gustav's birth, really Emilie's story, explaining quite sadly and poignantly why she is the mother she is to Gustav. Just another horribly sad war story really.

In the third part, Gustav and Anton are middle aged, Emilie is still alive but very elderly. The friendship between the two men has wavered over the years, depending on their life circumstances. Have they had good lives? It is hard to say. I suspect not, there is a lot of sadness in each of the two men. As they age however, they are brought together again, and the last few pages are just wonderful in what happens, and how beautifully it is written. 

STASI CHILD by David Young

The cover is so 'airport book shop' pick-me read - easy, light, thriller, a page turner, just the thing for a long flight. Or wet weekend. And the plot is also very easy and quick to come to grips with. Set in  East Germany in the 1970s you know already it isn't going to be a happy, cheerful, fun read. Corruption, bleakness, paranoia, spying, distrust and propaganda fill the pages of this very readable novel. It is definitely a step above that standard airport read, and I guarantee it will hold any reader's attention.

Oberleutnant Karin Muller is the highest ranked woman in the People's Police. She is a proud supporter of the political system she has been born into, happily accepting the propaganda about the West , its dysfunctional capitalism, its wastage and general depravity. She lives in a society where everyone is constantly under suspicion, who can you trust, wages are low, living conditions bleak and colourless, independent thought is actively discouraged with arrests and worse. Karin is married to a school teacher, Gottfried. Gottfried has already served penance at a reform school for watching Western movies and associating with a known communist. Hardly surprising the marriage is under strain.

Karin and her partner Tilsner are investigating the discovery of the body of a teenaged girl on the eastern side of the Wall, looking as if she was shot fleeing from the West. They are tasked by the Stasi to only find out the identity of the girl, not the identity of her murderer, which immediately raises the suspicions of Muller and Tilsner. Naturally things are never what they seem, and there are plenty of obstacles in the pursuit of the truth. Parallel to this detective work is the story of Irma , a young girl living in the reform school that Gottfried just happens to have been sent to. Irma is there for the sins of her mother, who is/was a prostitute. This is a truly horrible place, awful things happen which are tied up with the murder that Muller and Tilsner are working on. Gradually the two plot lines meld, Muller going beyond simply identifying the victim, naturally, but leading to the satisfactory conclusion. Although a number of loose threads.

Even better, this is the author's first novel in the Karin Muller series, so there were plenty of fish hooks dangling at the end to easily support another novel. She is quite a character, Karin Muller, although as another reviewer pointed out, she blushes way too often whenever attractive men are about. Hardly a characteristic you would think would be part of a senior toughened police officer. I can't Jane Tennison blushing in public!

WHITE HIGHLANDS by John McGhie

A really well written, gripping and vivid novel about a dark period in both Britain and Kenya's recent history. Those Brits doing it again - undermining the locals and destroying their way of life, with the locals fighting back. Author John McGhie is a journalist, having worked for the BBC and Observer newspaper, C4 News, and others. Primarily an investigative journalist he has also turned his hand to film making, his major achievement being a prize winning film he made about historical war crimes committed during the Mau Mau conflict in Kenya during 1952-1963. This would appear to be the background to his novel, the focus being on the Mau Mau reparation case, seeking an apology and financial reparations from the British government to Kenyans still alive from those times. Britain saying sorry to any nation is a gob smacking event, this settlement unprecedented when it finally happened in 2013.

This novel then, takes place in both the present and the past. It is 2008 and Samantha Seymour is one of the team of lawyers sent from London to talk to the claimants about their cases and their allegations against the colonial government of the time. She knows her grandparents lived in Kenya during this time, met and married there, and that there was something very murky about her grandfather's involvement in the Mau Mau rebellion that no one ever talked about it. She goes to Kenya with an open and curious mind, seeking to learn more about her family history.

Back in 1952, her grandfather Johnny Seymour has recently arrived in Nairobi, still traumatised by what he saw in the camps at the end of WWII in Europe. He has since become a journalist/photographer, working with his old army boss Grogan Littlejohn,  for the Government Information Office. He doesn't really like the culture of the British colonial that he is forced to live and work in, preferring the wide open spaces of Kenya, but he quickly becomes smitten with Tansy, a nurse who has lived most of her life in Kenya, and would appear to be Grogan's girlfriend. But it is his work as a photographer that exposes him to the underbelly of the great British colonial might, and before long he is fighting his own battle to stay alive, record what is going on around him, and save the lives of both Tansy and their Kenyan driver.

Great characters, both flawed and honourable, terrific story development and a most satisfying conclusion. Excellent book.