Book Review: The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri

Aleppo in Syria is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. It is where this story begins. Nuri is a beekeeper who lived a peaceful life in Aleppo with his artist wife Afra and their son Sami until their lives were shattered by war. Sami is killed in a bomb blast whilst playing in the garden. The same blast renders Afra blind after seeing Sami die. Afra and Nuri remain in Aleppo longer than they should, not wanting to leave the memory of their young son. Eventually they are forced to go when it becomes apparent that Nuri’s life is at risk. The Beekeeper of Aleppo is the story of their journey fleeing through Turkey and Greece as they try to reach England where Nuri’s cousin who taught him about bees lives.

But in Syria there is a saying: inside the person you know, there is a person you do not know.

Christy Lefteri, herself the daughter of refugees, wrote the novel after spending a couple of years volunteering in a refugee centre in Athens. It is a story about the refugee journey and the experiences they endure in a state of high vulnerability. It touches on the effects of severe trauma, grief, child trafficking, ethnic cleansing, flight, asylum processes, seeking a new home when your own becomes uninhabitable – it is also a love story.

I wanted to set forth the idea that among profound, unspeakable loss, humans can still find love and light—and see one another.

As Nuri and Afra escape Syria, each are haunted in different ways by what they have seen and experienced. They become known to the reader as the people they were before the troubles, as well was who they have become as a result of flight from a war torn country. We witness their struggle to stay connected with one another and their dead son whilst they navigate their way to safety.

People are not like bees. We do not work together, we have no real sense of a greater good

The Beekeeper of Aleppo is written with compassion and hope. Whilst the characters experience great brutality, the story is also beautiful and a moving plea for greater humanity in our treatment of displaced people.

Where there are bees there are flowers, and wherever there are flowers there is new life and hope

Book Review: Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

If you are looking for a dark, discomforting psychological thriller to be disturbed by during this long cold winter, Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn could be for you.

Everyone has a moment where life goes off the rails.

Camille Preaker escaped Wind Gap, a small town in Missouri, for a career as a journalist in Chicago. Her boss sends her back to Wind Gap, best known for its pig abattoir, to investigate the murder of a young girl. After Camille arrives in town the bodies start piling up.

A town so suffocating and small, you tripped over people you hated every day. People who knew things about you. It’s the kind of place that leaves a mark

Camille left Wind Gap for a reason – her family. Camille’s troubled mother comes from old money – she owns the hog farm, the towns primary source of revenue. Of her two sisters, one is dead and she can’t stand her precocious younger stepsister. Camille is a little complicated herself – she’s an addict (sex and alcohol) and she self-harms. She keeps her body covered to hide the words she has carved onto it over the years.

I always feel sad for the girl that I was, because it never occurred to me that my mother might comfort me. She has never told me she loved me, and I never assumed she did. She tended to me. She administrated me.

Suspense, plot twists, gore, dysfunction and the dark side of the female psyche…read it if you dare.

Book review: All Our Shimmering Skies by Trent Dalton

It’s 1942 and Darwin is under siege from the Japanese. The mother of twelve year old gravedigger girl Molly Hook died as a result of a curse placed on her family by Longboat Bob whose gold was stolen by her grandfather. Molly lives with her hopeless alcoholic father and abusive uncle and digs graves in Hollow Wood Cemetery, and she believes her heart is turning to stone.

In all these years, he said, he was yet to come across a single gold nugget that brought any real happiness to the person who held it. Longcoat Bob said his family had found one large nugget long ago, centuries back, that resembled a human hand. And it became so coveted by members of his family that it caused fights between brother and sister, sister and mother, father and son. During one dispute an old woman struck her nephew with the gold hand. The nephew was struck dumb and his mental capacity was like a water hole that could never be more than half full after that. And the old woman was so ashamed by her actions that she begged Longcoat Bob’s grandfather, the oldest living member of the family, to hide the gold away in a place where no one else could find it. And any other gold nuggets that were found from that moment on Longcoat Bob’s grandfather reasoned, were best hidden away with it too.

Molly is best friends with a shovel and she speaks to the sky. The sky talks back and offers gifts to help her. While Darwin is being bombed she escapes on a quest to find Longcoat Bob and ask him to lift the curse on her family. She picks up travelling companions on her way – her wicked uncles beautiful actress girlfriend Greta, fleeing his clutches, and Yukio, a Japanese fighter pilot who falls from the sky.

The travellers dodge danger and the pursuit of a greedy, angry Uncle Aubrey as they follow a poetic map etched on a gold-panning dish left to Molly by her mother. Molly believes the map will lead her to Longcoat Bob.

Molly knows the secret to a long walk. Never think about the destination. Just think about the air in your lungs, the motion of your arms and legs. There is a rhythm to it, and once you have found it that rhythm can tick-tock through time forever.

All Our Shimmering Skies is Trent Dalton’s second novel. I reviewed his first, Boy Swallows Universe, in a previous blog. The two novels have a lot of parallels – the exploration of good and evil and Dalton’s fabulous sprinkle of magical realism. The protagonists of both stories are children living in the depths of intergenerational trauma amongst abusive and complicated adults but still manage to travel through life with a sense of hope and optimism despite their difficulties. All Our Shimmering Skies is part fable, part fairytale, a hero’s journey wildly imagined in the remote top end. Dalton’s writing is sublime and lyrical, and if you give yourself over to it, he will take you on a heartfelt magical journey.

Book review: Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Joint winner (alongside Margaret Atwood for The Testaments) of the 2019 Booker Prize, this densely populated novel tells the story of twelve characters across twelve chapters and different decades. The characters are black British woman of varying ages, sexualities, ethnic origins, faiths, classes and experiences, and choices whose lives overlap.

We should celebrate that many more women are reconfiguring feminism and that grassroots activism is spreading like wildfire and millions of women are waking up to the possibility of taking ownership of our world as fully-entitled human beings.

The collage of stories include theatre director Amma, her daughter Yazz and former partner Dominique. Mathematical whizz, Carole who’s intellect drew her from her poor upbringing to a lucrative banking job, Bummi her mother and La Tisha an old school friend and single parent of three who works in a supermarket. Shirley, veteran school teacher, her mother Winsome retired to Barbados, and Penelope a retired colleague of Shirley’s. Non-binary Megan/Morgan a social media influencer, Hattie their great grandmother, an elderly Northumberland farmer, and Grace, Hattie’s mother. The characters are complex and flawed.

why should he carry the burden of representation when it will only hold him back?
white people are only required to represent themselves, not an entire race

Girl, Woman, Other is a novel about the lived experience of black women, identity, friendship, feminism, struggle, longing, love, loss, joy, hope, bitterness and imagination. Evaristo’s prose-poetry writing style carries the reader with a delightful rhythm through the polyphonic choir of woman characters and delivers an emotionally engaging read.

we don’t exist in a vacuum… we are all part of a continuum, repeat after me, the future is in the past and the past is in the present

Book review: Hideous Beauty by William Hussey

Hideous Beauty is a mystery about young love, trauma and being queer. Trigger warning – it’s heart wrenching, covers some challenging issues and will most likely make you cry.

Truth is dull and frightening and soul destroying. Art is about the wonderful lies we tell ourselves so we can bear to live the truth.

Dylan is forced to come out before he is ready after a video of him having sex with his boyfriend El goes viral. They decide to get on the front foot and got to the school dance together. It goes surprisingly well and Dylan thinks he has found happiness in being able to be himself with Ellis. Dylan’s euphoria is short lived when El starts behaving strangely, becomes angry and withdrawn. Driving home from the school dance Ellis loses control of the car and the two boys crash into a lake – Dylan is pulled from the car, but Ellis drowns. A grief stricken Dylan vows to find out why his rescuer left Ellis in the car.

We all wanted El to be something he could never be. And we thought us wanting that was somehow acceptable, but it’s not. It’s not about El fitting into some idea of what he should be. Tolerance isn’t conditional. It’s absolute.

A beautiful and sensitive account of first love, coming out, high school politics, illness, grief, and the effects of trauma. Reading it was an emotional roller coaster – and it did make me cry.

Book review: My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

I read an article about books on female friendship written by Italian novelist Elena Ferante (a pseudonym) whose true identity remains a mystery and was intrigued, so I picked up one of her novels.

They were more severely infected than the men, because while men were always getting furious, they calmed down in the end; women, who appeared to be silent, acquiescent, when they were angry flew into a rage that had no end.

Studious and plain Elena who narrates the story, is in awe of the charismatic Lila, always feeling second best despite her own achievements. As children Elena is the teachers pet and fiery Lila relates to her as competitor and a role model. In adolescence Elena continues to study seeing it as a way to escape her circumstances whilst Lila drops out and pursues marriage as a means to escape her situation.

I feel no nostalgia for our childhood: it was full of violence.  Every sort of thing happened, at home and outside, every day, but I don’t recall having ever thought that the life we had there was particularly bad.  Life was like that, that’s all, we grew up with the duty to make it difficult for others before they made it difficult for us

My Brilliant Friend traces the girls relationship and ambitions of rising above their circumstances from childhood through adolescence. It is a story about power and gender relations, the effect of patriarchy and violence, class, and left wing politics and how they influence smart young women trying to make their way in the world.

There was something unbearable in the things, in the people, in the buildings, in the streets that, only if you reinvented it all, as in a game, became acceptable. The essential, however, was to know how to play, and she and I, only she and I, knew how to do it.

Set on the outskirts of Naples in the 1950s, Ferante’s writing is vivid, authentic and epic. My Brilliant Friend is an uncensored study of female friendship, the first in a series of three novels about the two highly intelligent working class girls with an intense, enmeshed intimate friendship.

Book review: Who is Vera Kelly? by Rosalie Knecht

Who is Vera Kelly? set across dual timelines (1957 and 1966) and two countries (Maryland, USA and Buenos Aires, Argentina) is coming of age meets coming out meets espionage with a side of literary historical fiction.

Vera Kelly is a troubled teenager coming to terms with her sexuality. Her mother lands her in a juvenile detention centre after she steals a car. When released she moves to Greenwich Village in New York City and works night shift at a radio station and tentatively explore the queer scene.

On a Tuesday I came home from school to an empty house, watched the evening news, and then took Equanil caplets lifted from my mother. Nothing happened, so after an hour I took three more, and then maybe after that, I can’t remember.

Vera Kelly is a young CIA agent with a flair for electronics on her first big mission to Buenos Aries during the Cold War in the lead up to a coup. Revolución Argentina would establish Juan Carlos Ongania as defacto president. Vera rents an apartment and pretends to be a Canadian student befriending a group of local students suspected of being KGB agents.

I had found the apartment in San Telmo with the help of a motherly rental agent in a pink suit who had tried to cheat me on her percentage not once but twice, and reacted with a broad and charming laugh both times I pointed it out, as if we were flirting on a date and I was removing her hand from my thigh.

Vera bugs the students bicycles and with the help of a local contact, the Argentina Vice President’s office, tracking the students movements during the day and transcribing conversations from the officials office at night. When the coup seems imminent Vera decides to action her escape plan but the borders are closed faster than she can escape. Upon returning to her apartment she finds she’s been betrayed by her local contact and has to go into hiding until she can find another way out.

Oh my God, you should have seen us in ’55, ’56, ’62,’ he said, sighing. ‘Every year, another old man shouting from a grandstand with all his medals on. “I’ve come to replace your previous old man.” Some people would go to jail, everyone else would get used to it, and then it would start all over

There’s a long set up in this novel, but the character of Vera carries it off with her whip smart intellect, dry humour and keen observations of the times. I really enjoyed the insights into the New York queer scene in the early 60’s when being queer was illegal, and the history of Argentina. There is a correlation between being gay when it’s illegal and a spy running through the novel – the coded language and pretending to be someone you are not.

Vera is a relatable character and if you like women driven, realistic spy stories with a strong plot – this book could be for you. Even better, there are two more Vera Kelly novels to devour – Vera Kelly is not a Mystery (2020) and Vera Kelly Lost and Found (2022)

I woke with an ache in my chest and heard the subsiding whistle of a teakettle in the kitchen. I read the spines of the paperbacks on the night table: Graham Greene, Patricia Highsmith. Novels about liars. I needed to call Gerry.

Book review: The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman

There’s something about Richard Osman’s novels that make me think of the famous five in retirement after one of them has popped off their perch. I reviewed his first novel The Thursday Murder Club a few weeks ago and went back for some more laughs.

Some people in life, Sue, are weather forecasters, whereas other people are the weather itself.

Kent based senior citizens are back in the second book in Osman’s comic crime series. Led by ex-secret service woman Elizabeth Best and former nurse Joyce, retired psychiatrist Ibrahim, and former unionist Ron, collude with police detective Donna, her boss Chris and tattooed handyman Bogdan, who has a way with the ladies, to wrangle a local teenage thug who assaults Ibrahim, a lady drug dealer and an underworld middle man from whom Elizabeth’s ex-husband stole diamonds, and gets murdered for his trouble.

That twinkle in his eye was undimmed. The twinkle that gave an entirely undeserved suggestion of wisdom and charm. The twinkle that could make you walk down the aisle with a man almost ten years your junior and regret it within months. The twinkle you soon realize is actually the beam of a lighthouse, warning you off the rocks.

The main two characters, Elizabeth and Joyce, are fearless – and it pays off as most people simply think they are two harmless old ladies – and they never get harmed. Elizabeth is smart, canny and fearless whilst Joyce is optimistic and kind hearted – knitting friendship bracelets in her spare time.

What a tiny, formidable woman. Exactly the sort of woman you’d want parachuted behind enemy lines with a gun and a cipher machine.

The Man Who Died Twice is a light, joyful, fun and entertaining romp with a group of old friends in their twighlight years dealing with the realities of ageing – death, dementia, personal safety and painful grown up children – whilst they happen to be solving major crimes. I hope I have such adventures when I’m a septuagenarian.

Book review: Skin by Kerry Andrew

One day in 1985, eleven year old Matty’s Irish father disappeared. Matty is offered no explanation and starts to hunt for him. Her search leads her to the swimming ponds at Hampstead Heath and she comes to believe he has killed himself by drowning in the men’s pond.

Along with grief, Matty finds freedom in the water and a community of men who provide a kind of refuge from her difficult relationship with her Italian mother. Matty is not an ordinary girl and her mother struggles with her daughters identity.

It began to have its own call. Water has a song, a near-silent lilt. When you got closer – tarn, pool, river, proper swimming lake – the impatience made you sweat.

When her mother dies, Matty makes a discovery in her mother’s house that makes her believe her father is still alive. She sets off in search of him in a camper van, swimming the wild loughs as she travels. Her trip brims with danger and discovery.

The novel is full of layers and includes great beauty, water mythology and moments of magical realism. An evocative novel with themes include loss and grief, journeys, gender and sexuality.

Book review: Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead

Literary crime novel Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead is set in the early 1960s. Reading it was a journey of cultural immersion – full of wise guys and street talk. It’s noir-ish flavour is a study in how our environment and prejudice can limit us in life, no matter how hard we try – and how frustration at those limitations can boil over.

You came from one place but more important was where you decided to go.

When we meet Ray Carney, the civil rights movement is live, but he just wants to get on with his own life and be taken seriously as a legitimate businessman. Ray runs a furniture store in Harlem on 125th Street that he opened using money he found in his dead father’s car.

Carney imagined himself inside because he was looking for evidence of himself. Was there an Argent wingback chair or Heywood-Wakefield armoire in one of them, over by the window, the proof of a sale he’d closed? It was a new game he played, walk­ing around this unforgiving town: Is my stuff in there?

Carney senior, a petty thief and hustler, was a gunned down by police stealing cough syrup from a pharmacy. Ray is as straight as you can be in a town run on corruption, where the cops have to be paid off and the fear of retribution runs deep. Some of the goods he sells have dubious origins – he’s a reluctant fence who innocently gets caught up in a jewel heist.

Carney was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked, in practice and ambition.

Harlem Shuffle exposes the injustices in the justice system and that the line between legal and illegal is blurred. Whitehead shines a light on the false moralities of capitalism and that the founding of the USA itself, like all colonised counties was done through theft and treachery and that we are all complicit in.

There’s us, there’s water, and then there’s more land, we’re all a part of the same thing. But Park Avenue, with those big old buildings facing one another, full of old white people, there’s none of that feeling, right? It’s a canyon. And the two sides don’t give a shit about you. If they wanted, if they so decided, they could squeeze together and crush you. That’s how little you are