Book review – The Beekeeper of Aleppo, by Christy Lefteri

Title: The Beekeeper of Aleppo

Author: Christy Lefteri

Publisher: Zaffre (UK) 2019

The author

Christy Lefteri is the daughter of Cypriot refugees. She lives in London and has worked as a volunteer for refugee organisations. Christy has a PhD in creative writing and is the author of three novels. The Beekeeper of Aleppo is her second book.

The book

Nuri, a beekeeper, and his artist wife, Afra, are the main protagonists. They represent thousands of refugees who flee daily from wartorn countries across the world. In order to reach safety and the possibility of a life free from personal threat, Afra and Nuri endure a journey of constant uncertainty in their quest to arrive in England, their chosen country of freedom.

The couple carry trauma, grief and, sometimes, hopelessness after fleeing Syria, their home country. They leave behind their former life and their young son, Sami, who was killed in their backyard by a bomb blast which also rendered Afra blind. The vivid memories and tremendous love for Sami remain with them. Their grief is profound — their loss almost unbearable as their journey takes them to Istanbul, Leros, Athens and finally to London.

This book is heartbreaking, and yet the thread of hope that weaves throughout the story and the human interactions of love and desperation are enough to hold the reader close. The countless side stories about people that Nuri and Afra encounter along the way demonstrate the reality of people’s lives as they flee persecution.

Watch: Christy Lefteri in conversation with Esmeraldo Santiago about The Beekeeper of Aleppo

at youtube, via the aspen institute

Nuri and Afra provide a lens into lived trauma, untreated and endured under extreme circumstances — the story illustrates that human survival depends on many aspects. Often, it’s luck, sometimes it’s the need to manipulate, to stay grounded, to remain hopeful when all seems hopeless, and to hold onto a belief in the future. But most of all, it’s endurance.

Christy Lefteri has written a beautiful but sad and confronting account of the refugee journey and takes the reader into challenging territory. But the power of the writing allows the experience to be understood with compassion, empathy and admiration.

Reviewed by: Heather Whitford Roche

Ballarat Writers Inc. Review Group, September 2021

Book review – Something to Hide, by Fleur McDonald

Title: Something to Hide

Author: Fleur McDonald

Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2021

Fleur McDonald is one of Australia’s favourite authors, having sold over 600,000 copies of her books. She has lived and worked much of her life on farms, and draws inspiration for her writings from these experiences. Her stories are set in regional areas around Australia and her characters reflect the people who own and work the farms.

Red Dust, her debut novel, made her the highest selling debut author of 2009. She has since written 16 novels and two children’s books. Her stories tell of strong women working on the land and of the events that unfold. She has also published the Detective Dave Burrows series of books.

Something to Hide is the fourth in the series of Detective Dave Burrows. In this novel Dave is stationed in Perth, with his wife Melinda and their two children. Dave has recently returned to Perth and his family following a dangerous undercover case he was involved with in outback Queensland. While out shopping Melinda is approached by a stranger who speaks to her about Dave. Later, Melinda relays the conversation to Dave, and he realizes his cover in his previous job has been blown. Knowing the men involved, Dave becomes worried for his family’s safety, and when offered a job in the goldfield town of Barrabine, he accepts it. His wife Melinda is not happy and friction soon develops within their relationship.

Fleur McDonald, her family and life on the farm

at mamamia, 2020

As Dave settles into his new job, he begins to realise he and his family are still at risk from the men involved in his previous job. Melinda becomes frightened and angry, and threatens to leave Dave and take the children with her to her parents’ home. Knowing his family are in danger, and against the wishes of Melinda, Dave makes the decision to hunt down the men who remain a threat to their safety. 

This is a riveting novel, well written and full of tension—within the marriage of Melinda and Dave, and in Dave’s attempt to apprehend the men who seek revenge. Even though this novel is the fourth in the series of Detective Dave Burrows, the story has enough background to enable the reader to understand how Dave and his family have come to this point in their lives.

I enjoyed this novel, became immersed in the lives of Dave and Melinda, and look forward to reading more in the Detective Dave Burrows series.  

Reviewed by: Linda Young

Ballarat Writers Inc. Book Review Group

Review copy provided by the publisher

Book review – The Riviera House, by Natasha Lester

Title: The Riviera House

Author:  Natasha Lester

Publisher: Hachette Australia, 2021

Natasha Lester is a New York Times bestselling author. Her novels have been translated into many different languages and published around the world. She lives in Perth, Western Australia.

The Riviera House is two stories told in alternating sections: 1940s Paris under Nazi occupation, and 2015 on the French Riviera.

The Paris story finds Eliane Dufont working at the Louvre. She falls in love with wealthy, charismatic artist Xavier Laurent. Xavier gives Eliane an engagement ring, makes love to her, then tells her that he will be leaving for London in the morning – without her! Furious, hurt and feeling used, Eliane throws the expensive ring at Xavier.

The Nazis begin looting Paris. Eliane secretly catalogues the thefts, hoping to trace France’s art treasures after the Allies invade. It is dangerous work. Hiding her knowledge of the German language, Eliane joins the French resistance with her brother Luc and sister Angelique.

The next time Eliane sees Xavier, he is with Field Marshall Hermann Goering. She is shocked and disgusted. She is also afraid that he might give her away because he knows she can understand their German conversations.

Luc, Angelique and Eliane aid the Allied invasion. But as secrets of the resistance are betrayed it becomes evident that there is a traitor among them. Who?

Find out more about art looted by the Nazis

at dw.com

The Riviera story begins in 2015. Sydney woman Remy Lang is hiding from the world on the French Riviera after the death of her husband and daughter. Her interest in art leads her to a catalogue of Hermann Goering’s art thefts, in which she is mystified to find a photo of a painting she owns, one that has always belonged to her family. Thus begins a search for Remy’s past and the origin of the painting, in which she is assisted by Adam Henry-Jones, photographer to the rich and famous. Remy is horrified by their dark discoveries … and can it be true that she is descended from a Nazi?

The Riviera House is two love stories: the first is passionate, dangerous love, betrayal, heroism and finally, horror.  The other is tender love and a mystery to be unravelled.

Natasha Lester weaves an intricate and suspenseful narrative through two contrasting worlds – the desperate poverty and danger that was Paris under the Nazis – and the twenty-first century glamorous world of the super rich. The Riviera House is a compelling read.

Reviewed by: Maureen Riches

Ballarat Writers Inc. Book Review Group

Review copy provided by the publisher

Book review – Nothing But My Body, by Tilly Lawless

Title: Nothing But My Body

Author: Tilly Lawless

Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2021

Born in regional NSW, Tilly Lawless moved to Sydney to attend university as a history student. Becoming a sex worker meant she was able to earn an income while still allowing time for study. She continues her sex work as well as advocating for sex workers and writing about her interests which are broad, and encompass climate change, politics, mental health and queer issues.

This novel is structured to reflect eight consecutive days of the week – from one Saturday to the next. However, the days themselves are not consecutive but occur over a period of 13 months. The locations vary, with no two days occurring at the same place. A range of Sydney brothels – or ‘broths’ as the narrator calls them – and one in an outback NSW town, and the places she meets with clients at their home or workplace, form most of the backdrops. Settings also include Berlin, the location of a combined work (to meet a client booked online) and pleasure trip – she describes partying at a nightclub there; her own home and those of friends; a trip back to the rural area she grew up in; beaches, mainly clothing-optional; and the various venues she attended for Mardi Gras, 2020.

The events in the novel take place over the time of the devastating bushfires of 2018/19 and the first few months of the covid pandemic. The strain of breathing smoke-filled air for weeks on end and the effects of covid restrictions add to the already existing results of an abusive relationship (or was it more than one?) the narrator escaped from physically, but which haunts her mentally and emotionally. Allusions are made to episodes of self-harm and alcoholism, now both under control but with an ongoing impact on her life and mental state. Another impact is her propensity to engage in problematic online relationships and then agonise over them.

Watch Tilly Lawless’s address on sex work and the feminist movement

at TEDxYOUTH@SYDNEY 2017

While all this sounds dark and heavy there is a sparkling poeticism to the way the author describes the life of the protagonist. ‘Maddy’ (her working name) engages with a range of political and cultural questions, seeing in her life and the lives of those she engages with – friends, clients, and co-workers alike – events which allow her to address the humanity and dignity of each individual. She juggles the apparent inconsistencies of being a lesbian while having sex with men for profit. And she makes central the relationships she has which sustain and nurture her, as she nurtures her friends.

This is in parts a challenging and confronting book with its explicitness around some of the experiences, both professional and personal, that Maddy endures. Its rawness highlights an honesty that is spare, thoughtful, and real. Most of all, it is imbued with an optimism that is very welcome right now.

Reviewed by: Elisabeth Bridson

Ballarat Writers Inc. Book Review Group

Review copy provided by the publisher

Book review – Billy Summers, by Stephen King

Title: Billy Summers

Author: Stephen King

Publisher: Hodder and Stoughton

Stephen King’s stories sometimes aren’t so much about the journey but the people and places we encounter along the way, and Billy Summers may fall into that category. Not that there’s an issue with the story. King knowingly, overtly – his protagonist knows the narrative he is playing out – lets us know this is the story of a hitman lining up his last hit and hoping to bag a retirement nest egg in the process.

Of course it’s going to go wrong, of course the hitman is going to try to save his neck, maybe take some revenge, right some wrongs. There will be complications.

But this is not, as Summers himself says, a Sly Stallone movie. King keeps it down to earth – with the exception of one little decorative aside, a nod to one of King’s early great successes – and provides the signature touches to freshen up this well-worn path.

STEPHEN KING READS FROM BILLY SUMMER

at youtube

King’s hitman is softened for the reader, a Marine with Iraq under his belt, a man with, as one character remarks, a moral code. He is fallible. What’s more, Summers is well read, a budding writer. And so the story swings, in beautiful rhythm, between key events in Summers’ past and his current predicament. Summers, well versed in the genre of his life, has an almost meta awareness of the role he is playing out, the dichotomy of being, if not a bad man then not a good man, who only kills bad men for his living. That awareness and his experimentation with writing allow for occasional ruminations and insights into the writer’s life, and reminders that this is not a Hollywood script – if he is writing the story of his life, it is not a fanciful tale; likewise, this tale in which he is starring is not fanciful.

Further elevating the story is King’s ability to present human characters – the warmth of relationships, the care for each other – and that sublime power of description. If a scene is a paint by numbers image, Kings know he needs fill in only sections 3, 4 and 7 for the reader to get the full picture, whether its street-to-street fighting in Fallujah or an unassuming rental in a middling neighbourhood of a nondescript American town.

And so we have it: set up, incident, aftermath, leading to the inevitable final comeuppance and the question of will he or won’t he, and the damage done along the way. And finally there’s the conclusion and the epilogue, which are pure killer.

Reviewed by: Jason Nahrung

Jason is Ballarat Writers Inc. publicity and communications officer

Review copy provided by the publisher

Book review – The Final Revival of Opal & Nev, by Dawnie Walton

Title: The Final Revival of Opal & Nev

Author: Dawnie Walton

Publisher: Quercus Editions, 2021

The Author

Dawnie Walton is an American freelance journalist and fiction writer living in Brooklyn, New York.  Walton’s status as a low-profile celebrity and storyteller has been significantly boosted by her debut novel, The Final Revival of Opal & Nev.  If you have a watch list for authors, Dawnie Walton is worth putting on it.

The Book

From page one Walton draws the reader into the lives of the characters inhabiting this book.  Love them or loathe them, you will get to know them.

There are effectively two interconnected narratives running through this book. The most obvious is the retrospective stories of Opal Jewel and Nev Charles, rock stars, who had collaborated, infamously, early in their careers.  The second is the personal journey experienced by high-flying magazine editor Sunny Curtis as she pieces together the lives of Opal and Nev for a book intended for publication in conjunction with Opal and Nev’s reunion performance.

Walton has Curtis present the underlying story of Opal and Nev as a series of interviews with them and their contemporaries. This gives the reader a broad view of the pair and is a convenient way of dealing with the expanse of time.  Curtis, who is the interviewer, is connected with the Opal and Nev story through the father she never knew.  Gradually Curtis learns “the truth” behind the defining incident in the early careers of Opal and Nev.

This is a very complex piece of writing, but a delight to read. It is easy to follow – the complexity comes from the multi-layering and intertwining of the stories of the major characters, including Curtis.

10 books about music and musicians, selected by Rebecca Kauffman

at the guardian

On the bell curve of normality Opal and Nev are both outliers.  The struggle for acceptance is a dominant theme.  In some ways the protagonist in this book could be the marginalised, and the story arc, how they come to grips with their struggle for a place in society.

To me this book shows us that love, ambition, jealousy, empathy are all common human traits, regardless of background; shades of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice “if you prick us, do we not bleed”.  However, there is no stepping away from the everyday struggle of black people, especially women, to overcome implicit bigotry and bias.

I thought Walton did a fantastic job in developing the characters; by the end of the book I was concerned for Curtis, she still has a lot to learn. As for Opal and Nev, I was less forgiving, especially Nev. Opal’s self-honesty is redeeming. This is probably not the result Walton would expect, but each to their own. We value diversity provided it is respectful, which I think is the point of the story.

Reviewed by: Frank Thompson

Ballarat Writers Inc. book review group

Review copy provided by the publisher

Book review – The Mind Travellers, by Phillip Boas

Title: The Mind Travellers — Book 1: Zed and Olaria

Author: Phillip Boas

Publisher: Shawline Publishing Group

Mind Travellers is a thought-provoking debut novel by Trentham’s Phillip Boas. Written as a science fiction tale, the story leverages Phillip’s experience as a psychologist, management consultant and leadership specialist.  These experiences have led him to consider how society might work if, from the boardroom to the bedroom, there were fewer ulterior motives, less deception and less duplicity in people’s lives.

Mind Travellers is set in the not-too-distant future.  An overcrowded Earth is struggling environmentally. Corporate dynastic families dominate the world; they see shifting people to other planets as a solution to overcrowding and a way of generating even more wealth for themselves.

The story’s main character, Dr Zed Eko, is a crew psychologist with Space Fleet Command. We first meet Zed as he boards the spacecraft Sunstreamer before it heads off on a special mission to investigate anomalies on a newly discovered planet. 

Arriving at the new planet, Zed and the mission crew meet the Olarians, a human- like race with powerful telepathic and telekinetic abilities. Knowing what everyone’s thinking makes it difficult to be deceitful.  Despite their abilities, the Olarians have problems of their own. 

What are we thinking? More books about telepaths!

at goodreads

Zed forms a relationship with the Olarian leader Olaria, which takes on another dimension when Olaria enables Zed’s latent telepathic abilities. From this point Zed’s life becomes complicated as Zed and Olaria become instrumental in influencing the relationship between humans and Olarians.

Phillip’s depiction of senior leadership personality traits is masterful. His portrayal of the head of Space Fleet Central Command has a disturbing degree of reality about it.  At times, Phillip is rather clinical in laying bare the games and subtle strategies of subterfuge used by senior leaders. 

Mind Travellers is an interesting read because of the values and concepts presented for conducting human relationships. There is a lot of emphasis on openness, honesty, and trust, something many might agree is lacking in our society today. While there are displays of telepathic force by Olaria and later Zed, Phillip has exercised restraint, recognising that one cannot make the ills of society better by waving a magic wand or simply wishing it so. 

This is a book written by a person who has had the opportunity to observe life at many levels, there is wisdom within its covers – it is well worth a read.

Reviewed by: Francis Thompson

Ballarat Writers Inc. Book Review Group

August Members’ Night goes online

With new lockdown restrictions ruling out our usual meeting at the Bunch of Grapes, our monthly Members’ Night is going to Zoom on Wednesday 25 August. Details have been sent via newsletter, so please let us know if you have not received them or need assistance with navigating the Zoom environment! Fingers crossed we will be back at the table in September!

Book review – The Turnout, by Megan Abbott

Title: The Turnout

Author: Megan Abbott

Publisher: Hachette/Virago

Megan Abbott made her mark early with noir novels and more recently splashed onto Netflix with the adaptation of her novel Dare Me, set in the world of cheerleading. 

Here, she combines those influences with a contemporary Gothic atmosphere centred on a ballet school run by the sisters Dara and Marie and Dara’s husband, Charlie. All three have risen through the dance ranks under the tutelage of the girls’ mother, the pains, scents, jealousies and beauty of the art beautifully evoked as the school prepares for its signature annual production, The Nutcracker.

Tchaikovsky’s ballet is, we are told by one of Abbott’s characters, in part an exploration of desire, and Abbott makes full use of this as The Nutcracker infuses the story in theme and imagery. As with The Nutcracker, so too ballet; even the chapters are cut into small steps, each dramatically opening with a drop capital but the whole coming together in a smooth movement under Abbott’s assured direction.

Repetition in words and phrases adds to the lyrical quality in Abbott’s prose that may, very occasionally, make a small misstep but never stumbles. It’s an exquisite rendering, the book’s title itself a reference to a key ballet stance given extra meaning in Abbott’s skilled hands. 

The school, dated and drafty, and the trio’s home, even more tired and still echoing with the girls’ parents’ tumultuous relationship, form the key sites of this claustrophobic tale. We see, hear and smell these locations through Dara’s point of view as she stoically maintains the school’s tradition alongside the impetuous Marie and impaired, beautiful Charlie. 

The trio’s relationship is increasingly brought under pressure by the arrival of a stranger into the school and their lives. There are secrets and there are tragedies, and while these are unlikely to surprise, they do unfold in perfect timing across the novel’s four acts, allowing the sisters to have, like The Nutcracker’s heroine Clara, their journey from childhood to a newfound maturity and freedom. (It is no coincidence that Marie is an alternative name for the Nutcracker‘s Clara.)

This being an Abbott book, such a journey of discovery does not come without a cost, and nothing is assured. In this, the story again mirrors ballet: beauty built on pain, a journey that entrances every step of the way.

Reviewed by: Jason Nahrung

Jason is BWI communications officer / Review copy provided by the publisher

Book review – Sugar Town Queens, by Malla Nunn

Title: Sugar Town Queens

Author: Malla Nunn

Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2021

Malla Nunn is a film director and multi-award-winning author of adult crime novels, plays and film scores and, more recently, two young adult novels. Sugar Town Queens is the second of these. She was born and raised in Swaziland before migrating to Western Australia with her family where she finished school and commenced her university studies. Since then, Malla has studied and worked in the USA and Zanzibar and is now settled with her husband in Sydney.

Like Malla herself, the protagonist of this story, Amandla, is a mixed-race girl. She lives with her mother, a white woman, in a one-roomed shack on a lane that has no name in a township a few miles from Durban. Their poverty is palpable. However, Amandla, despite the difficulties of her life – and there are many – points out that they are not the poorest, there are others even poorer.

As the story unfolds the reasons for their dire situation are revealed. These reasons revolve around events that occurred before Amandla’s birth fifteen years earlier. Something back then caused her mother, Annalisa, to develop gaps in her memory and to behave in some unorthodox ways. A white woman living in a township is the first of these, as is the isolation she imposes on Amandla and herself from the rest of the community. The book revolves around Amandla’s efforts to discover the reasons for her mother’s mental state and their living situation.

Amandla faces a range of issues in her quest for the truth. These include both overt and covert racism, the structural inequalities that still exist in Nelson Mandela’s South Africa of ‘rainbow people’, and her mother’s obvious mental health problems. A severe lack of physical and financial resources is more than met by the resourcefulness of Amandla herself, and the group of friends – the queens of the title – she gathers around her as she discovers facts important to her history and her future, and creates community for her and her mother. The strength and resilience of young people, particularly the young women of the story, as they cohere as a group is powerful. This is particularly so when they deal with a violent incident.

The writing is gripping, with well-rounded characters and (mostly) believable situations. Nunn’s depiction of family relationships in all their complexity is deft and nuanced. She weaves the larger issues of family, community, belonging, self-discovery and social inequality into the weft of a highly personal narrative. The exploration of characters who tend not to adhere to what is deemed acceptable adds to the complexity of the story without being heavy-handed.

Reviewed by: Elisabeth Bridson, June 2021

Ballarat Writers Inc Book Review Group

« Older posts

© 2021 Ballarat Writers

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑