Tracey’s picks

Wintering, book by Katherine May

Wintering, by Katherine May (Rider/Penguin, 2020)

A gentle treatise on hunkering down and wintering when it’s inevitable – whether that be because the season dictates it, or because of a spiritual or emotional deficit. Timely, because we’ve just weathered winter, because Lockdown has forced many of us to pause and manage it, and because people use the b-word to describe their lives – with exasperation – all too often. May explores the ways in which some countries practically prepare for their winters – well in advance – and ways in which others manage their own personal wintry moments.

Klara and the Sun, book by Kazuo Ishugiro

Klara and the Sun, by Kazuo Ishiguro (Faber, 2021)

Man Booker- and Nobel Prize-winning author Ishiguro’s eighth novel is the voice of an Artificial Friend. Klara’s linear recollection and simple syntax is easily and quickly read, but that does not make her story a comfortable read. Not only does the tale examine the idea of what love is, but also what it is to be human. It also questions what family and friendships are; examines privilege and discrimination; and presents a very near, unsettlingly recognisable, future. This novel has, again, placed Kazuo Ishiguro on the Man Booker longlist for 2021. His delicate attention to the human condition will be familiar to those who’ve read other Ishiguro titles such as The Sleeping Giant or Remains of the Day.

Elmet, book by Fiona Mozley

Elmet, by Fiona Mozley (Hodder & Stoughton, 2017)

This debut, 2017 Man Booker-shortlister, is a contemporary gothic tale that feels centuries old in its family’s subsistence setting amidst a copse in a vale of Yorkshire and by the feudal-styled web of power(lessness) they’re trapped in. Isolated and suffocatingly close-knit, bound by blood- ties, but physically disparate, this marginalised family’s bond is ultimately undone by poverty, prejudice and pride, with lashings of violence. A compelling and devastating read. I’m looking forward to getting my hands on Mozleys’ second novel, Hot Stew (Algonquin Books, 2021)

Brood, by Jackie Polzin (Doubleday, 2021)

One of our mottled-black bantams laid an egg the day I finished this novel; this was auspicious as neither bantam had laid for half a year. This debut novel is not solely for hen enthusiasts, but chook-twitchers will understand the humour in the narrator’s observation of a hen when it ‘paused [and] cocked her head to the side in a brilliant imitation of thinking’. The story is not nearly as lightweight as it may sound either. This brood of hens represents more than four hens to be fed and watered; they need protecting, nourishing and potentially re-homing.

Our narrator’s needs parallel those of her brood; slowly her own story unfolds and she reveals her brood, or lack of, the threat of others in her life and the possibility of a job-relocation. Told simply and against a cycle of extreme Wyoming seasons, this tale has moments of hilarity, heartache and humanity, and many moments of hens.

Jacqui’s Picks

How the One – Armed Sister Sweeps her House, by Cherie Jones, Tinder Press, 2021

This debut novel is set on Barbados, a picturesque setting for a story which is harrowing and at times, relentless. It includes murder, rape, sexual assault, incest, domestic violence, and the death of a baby. But it is totally compelling as it sweeps you into a world in the Caribbean in the 1980s and addresses poverty, class, race, drug trafficking, love, domestic violence, and motherhood. At the centre is Lala, a young woman trapped in a violent marriage – as her mother had been before her.

The writing is excellent, the characters beautifully and realistically developed and relatable. Real life is not always pretty. It was shortlisted for the 2021 Women’s Prize. A powerful and amazing first novel.

Songbirds, book by Christy Lefteri

Songbirds by Christy Lefteri, Manilla Press, 2021

This novel is a beautiful and moving story, told by two different narrators, through whose eyes we learn about the disappearance of Nisha, an immigrant maid working in Cyprus. One is Petra, her employer, whose child she looks after. The other is Yiannis, her lover, an illegal poacher of tiny songbirds. Gradually we learn about Nisha and the daughter she left behind in Sri Lanka, so that she could work and earn money to send home. When she disappears, it is only Yiannis and Petra who notice and care enough to look for her.

I loved this story and the way in which it unfolds, drawing the reader into Nisha’s world even though she is missing from it. The beautiful language and imagery evoke strong visual pictures of time and place. It is a moving and memorable read, real and poignant, inspired by a true story. Highly recommended  – and it would make an excellent book club read – it even has questions to consider at the back.

still life, book by Sara Winman

Still Life by Sarah Winman, Harper Collins, 2021

I took a while to get into this novel initially, which jumps between Tuscany and London, introducing a range of characters and situations. But gradually it began to weave its spell and I was hooked. Set initially in wartime Florence, Evelyn Skinner, an English art historian in her sixties, meets Ulysses Temper, a young Allied soldier from London, and they accidentally discover a repository of hidden artworks. The experience is to weld them together for life, though they don’t yet know this. Each survives the war and returns to England, Ulysses to his wife Peg. Peg has not been faithful and has had a child from her affair. Eventually she leaves the child with Ulysses who inherits an Italian house from someone whose life he saved. And so the story moves back to Italy and we follow a cast of richly drawn characters who live their ordinary lives but with moments of exquisite beauty and discovery. Through flashbacks we fill in the gaps, while moving forward through time.

The novel weaves in historical moments such as the floods in Florence which destroyed artworks – art plays a central role along with family and what this might mean. Characters all find love and suffer loss, and we care deeply about them. It is a beautifully crafted novel and definitely one to read again.

what strange paradise, book by Omar El Akkad

What Strange Paradise by Omar El Akkad, Panmacmillan, 2021

I loved this book. It is moving, relevant, timely, gripping and powerful. A Syrian boy is washed up on a beach on a Greek island. He is Amir, a Syrian refugee, and the only survivor of a migrant ship caught in a storm. When he sees soldiers searching the bodies, he runs, and is helped by a local girl, Vanna.

With each chapter, the narrative switches between the boy’s frantic sprint across the island and the doomed voyage that brought him here. Episodes detailing his close calls with soldiers are interspersed with scenes on the old fishing boat crammed with people exploited by a network of smugglers. The friendship between Amir and Vanna and various small acts of kindness stand out amongst the awfulness of the situation.

It is not an easy read because the situation is so real. The writing moves us from hope to despair and back again and it is hard to put down.  It is truly a novel of our time. It will move you and stay with you long after you have finished reading it.

Children’s and YA recommendations

Jasper Jones, by Craig Silvey (Allen & Unwin, 2009)

This is a coming-of-age tale of the character of Charlie Bucktin. Thirteen-year-old Charlie was leading a very sheltered, middle-class life in a small, close-minded, Australian town before he’s exposed to a whole other world of crime and violence. This world is introduced to him through his newly formed friendship with Jasper Jones – an Aboriginal outsider. Charlie and Jasper meet when discovering the dead body of a local teen girl. The plot thickens and slowly unravels to reveal a far more sinister back-story. There’s a decent/hopeful ending. It includes rape, suicide and alchoholism, so it’s not recommended for tweens. It was a class-book for Yr12 English. 

Forest (15yo)

[Jasper Jones was short-listed for several major awards and selected by the American Library Association for their annual ‘Best Fiction for Young Adults’ list.]

Kōwhai and the Giants, by Kate Parker (Little Love, 2021)

This is all about trees and the natural world that, slowly, we are killing. The character of Kōwhai is a symbol of hope for our environment as she tries to undo the destruction of our forests and wildlife. This book can be easily read by young children, but also provides a deeper meaning for older audiences. Accompanying the beautiful text are delicate monochrome artworks made from hand-cut paper, which was lit from behind in a plywood box and then photographed.  

Pearl (13yo)

Note: This book won Best Picture Book and Best First Book at the recent NZCYA Book Awards, 2021.

The Tunnel of Dreams, by Bernard Beckett (Text Publishing, 2020)

I read this for my Mastermind competition; it’s not something I would have chosen to read, however the further I read into this novel, the more I enjoyed it. It is magical and relatable. It’s about the bond between siblings (all twins, in this case) and about how everyone has ‘magic’ in them – they just have to find it. I’d recommend this to readers aged between 10 and 14, of all genders.

Pearl (13yo)

North and South, book by Sandra Morris

North & South: a Tale of Two Hemispheres, by Sandra Morris (Walker Books, 2021)

This book is full of facts!!! From the Scottish ptarmigan to the African elephant, this book talks about animals, their natural habitats and their adaptations from season to season. It covers camouflage, building homes, migration, showing off and much more. It is presented in a format that is easily navigated and with aesthetic paintings portraying each animal. These are created using watercolour and salt.

Animal-lovers will love this book, I recommend ages 7 and above, however the text could easily be explained to younger readers.

Pearl (13yo)