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: 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: 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: 7 1/2 by Christos Tsiolkas

7 1/2 is a book about an author (Christos) who has fled the city to an isolated small town on the East Coast of Australia to write a story that has been lingering in his mind for years. Chistos wants the book to be about beauty – an antidote to a world that has been brimming over with crisis. And there is much beauty in it – landscapes and the weather and animals that pass across them, human connections and bodies are described lavishly. He also reflects on his pleasure in his writing process, and with affection on his childhood and the people who made him the man he has become.

I listened to the audiobook (twice) narrated by Lex Marinos and the words spilled over me like honey as I toiled in my Autumn garden and cooked and preserved the excess produce in my kitchen. Whilst listening to Christos’s writing about the things he loved, I was doing things that I love. Turning the soil, making pickled zucchini, poached quinces, pumpkin gnocchi and soup from the abundance of Autumn produce for my freezer whilst glancing out at the grapevine turning fire red through my kitchen window.

But I no longer trust the judgements of my age. The critic now assesses the writer’s life as much as her work. The judges award prizes according to a checklist of criteria created by corporations and bureaucrats. And we writers and artists acquiesce, fearful of a word that might be misconstrued or an image that might cause offence. I read many of the books nominated for the globalised book prizes; so many of them priggish and scolding, or contrite and chastened. I feel the same way about those films feted at global festivals and award ceremonies. It’s not even that it is dead art: it’s worse, it’s safe art. Most of them don’t even have the dignity of real decay and desiccation: like the puritan elect, they want to take their piety into the next world. Their books and their films don’t even have the power to raise a good stench. The safe is always antiseptic.

A man in middle age reflects on what he loves about being in the world. The book is auto fiction – part deeply personal and part fiction. The novel the protagonist is writing is called ‘Sweet Thing’ and is about an ageing ex-porn star and drug addict who leaves his wife and child temporarily to take a trip from Australia home to the USA where his is confronted by his past.

At the start of the novel Christos declares that he is tired of writing about issues – politics, sexuality, race, history, gender and morality – they bore him. Yet there are echoes of these topics throughout the novel – because they are part of life and it is difficult to separate ourselves from them completely. Ugliness and beauty coexist. We never really know what a thing is unless we can give an adequate account of its antithesis – a concepts Christos acknowledges at one point in 7 1/2.

There were moments in this book that were so personal, poetic and exquisite, they bought tears to my eyes. I will no doubt read it again just to inspire my own writing.

Book Review: The Labyrinth by Amanda Lohrey

The cure for many ills, is to build something.

A Labyrinth is often used as a walking meditation. The meandering path that leads to the centre creates a symbolic journey for personal, psychological and spiritual transformation.

The novel by that name written by Amanda Lohrey is a story of a personal journey, of taking oneself out of ordinary life to reflect and make space for change, to surrender to forces greater than oneself. A space to meditate on past patterns and symbolism, where outsiders gravitate in to become friends, catalysts or allies who help heal and find a new footing in the world. There is something almost gothic about the story. The reading is of itself meditative, and it demands to be read more than once in order to plumb it’s depths.

Time is a disease of the human psyche. One of my father’s precepts.  Sane people live in the moment, they do not dwell on the past and they do not succumb to fantasies about the future.  But on other occasions he would contradict himself.  When people go mad, he would say, they step out of time because time has become unmanageable and everything is chaotic flux.  They cannot put one foot in front of the other in any meaningful way.  Nor can they make a decisive intervention in the sequence of time as measured in units by the society around them. Chronology defeats them.  One disease generates another.  The larger social disease—generates the smaller private one: a mad resistance.

Erica Marsden abandons her urban life to be near her artist son housed in a jail near the NSW coast for manslaughter. Her visits to Daniel are torturous, but in between Erica tries to piece together a new life, separate from, yet drawing on reflections of her earlier years.

The walls of the visitors’ room are a violent mustard yellow,  On one wall there is a huge mural of crudely drawn trees and boulders in shades of muddy orange and greenish brown.  It has the quality of sludge.  Two warders escort me to a steel table, bolted to the floor, and I sit on a steel chair, also bolted to the floor.  Everything here is steel and concrete; even the air has a metallic taste.

Erica buys an old shack on the beach and decides to build a labyrinth like one she remembers from years ago. Abandoned by her mother as a child, she grew up on the grounds of a psychiatric institution were her father was the chief psychiatrist. She seeks meaning in her own existence as well as for why her son turned out the way he did. In this isolated town filled with other isolated people, Erica starts a new life and befriends those she would never have encountered in other circumstances.

Jurko, an outsider and illegal immigrant with the stonemason skills she requires to build the labyrinth appears in Erica’s orbit and the two form an unlikely alliance, then friendship through the building of the structure. In The Labyrinth, as in life, there is no neat ending just an unfolding that speaks to the complexities of existence and how one continues to unfold in the wake of disaster. It is a powerful and subtle story worthy of more than one visit.

I have learned that a simple labyrinth can be laid out by anyone, unlike a maze, which is a puzzle of mostly blind alleys designed for entrapment.  The maze is a challenge to the brain (how smart are you), the labyrinth to the heart (will you surrender).  In the maze you grapple with the challenge but in the labyrinth you let go.  Effortlessly you come back to where you started, somehow changed by the act of surrender.  In this way the labyrinth is said to be a model of reversible destiny.

Book review: Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown

Refreshingly and unapologetically individual. Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown, set in the USA in the 1950s is a bold celebration of growing up as a lesbian, the shedding of labels and limits, life as an adventure and making it out of poverty.

Oh great, you too. So now I wear this label ‘Queer’ emblazoned across my chest. Or I could always carve a scarlet ‘L’ on my forehead. Why does everyone have to put you in a box and nail the lid on it? I don’t know what I am—polymorphous and perverse. Shit. I don’t even know if I’m white. I’m me. That’s all I am and all I want to be. Do I have to be something?

Molly Bolt is the beautiful, smart, adopted daughter of a poor family with a very strong sense of self. She shrugs off the labels people, including her mother, try to attach to her – bastard, orphan, lesbian, queer, spic, – she shrugs them off and focusses on the things she is passionate about. Molly is bold, funny and shrewd. She shines a light on prejudice and difficulty with humour and is unashamed about not fitting the mould.

I had never thought I had much in common with anybody. I had no mother, no father, no roots, no biological similarities called sisters and brothers. And for a future I didn’t want a split-level home with a station wagon, pastel refrigerator, and a houseful of blonde children evenly spaced through the years. I didn’t want to walk into the pages of McCall’s magazine and become the model housewife. I didn’t even want a husband or any man for that matter. I wanted to go my own way. That’s all I think I ever wanted, to go my own way and maybe find some love here and there. Love, but not the now and forever kind with chains around your vagina and a short circuit in your brain. I’d rather be alone.

It’s hard to believe Rubyfruit Jungle was first published in 1973 but I wish I’d known about it then — it’s so much more uplifting than The Well of Loneliness which was the first novel depicting lesbians that I read — and it was bloody depressing. I love Molly’s frank, tell it like it is boldness and that she is fully committed to just being herself in a world that wants everyone to be the same. She understands equivocally that the ‘problem’ is societies cookie cutter attitude toward what is ‘normal’.

Book review: Cherry Slice by Jennifer Stone

Cherry Hinton is an investigative reporter turned cake shop owner turned private investigator in Cherry Slice by Jennifer Stone. There’s b-grade celebrities, reality TV, Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter in this bawdy chick lit meets crime fiction, fast paced funny novel set in Essex.

We’d spent the day slumped on the settee, only leaving it to get top-ups of drinks and crisps. I had Twitter running on my phone, Facebook on my iPad. The hot topic of conversation was who was going to get voted off that night and whether Jodrell Banks would manage to claw back her glamorous modelling career in light of having lost two stone with Big Blubbers help.

Martin was arrested and jailed for murdering contestant Kenny Thorpe on Big Blubber weight loss reality TV show but on his deathbed he wrote a letter to Kenny’s sister swearing he didn’t do it. Why would he do that if it wasn’t true? Kenny’s sister wants Cherry to find out.

I knew she didn’t believe me but the way I saw it, I was doing her a favour. Those Chavalicious girls were alright but they were a bit dull. A night down the cage fighting contest was much better option.

The reason Cherry is running her parents cake shop is that her reporting reputation was destroyed and she was dumped by her paper after being exposed (naked) going undercover on another reality TV show, Caravan of Love. This makes her the ideal candidate to investigate other reality TV contestants…

A light, quick, cozy locked room type mystery to disappear into the weird universe of reality TV with an Agatha Christie style ending. I listened to it whilst doing the gardening – the neighbours probably wondered what I was laughing at.

Book review: Honeybee by Craig Silvey

Heart wrenchingly sad, tender and beautiful, Honeybee is the coming of age story of Sam Watson, a fourteen year old boy with gender dysphoria on the cusp of puberty. The book opens with Sam standing on the wrong side of the railings of an overpass, driven to despair by his ‘otherness’ and the hurt and rejection that he has already been subject to because he is different in a society that cannot tolerate diversity.

It was very timely reading this book whilst the Australian Parliament argued over the so called ‘religious freedom bill’, that if passed, would favour the protection of religious people over rights of LGBTI folk – particularly trans kids and allow religious institutions to discriminate against those who do not conform to their particular principles. The bill was debated a week after one christian school had asked parents to sign an enrolment contract that referred to homosexuality as a sin – including it in a list of ‘immoral’ behaviour alongside bestiality, incest and pedophilia. The outrage that followed caused the school to withdraw the letter.

All these vitriolic shenanigans are backlash following the 2017 same sex marriage vote from a small group of the not so loving (hateful) faithful who still struggle to accept that humanity is a broad, diverse church – and that is ok. I have waxed lyrical about this before. Some people just love to hate, but fortunately a few politicians voted with their conscience resulting in the bill being shelved…for now.

…back to Honeybee. Sam grew up in poverty with a single mum he adored but who suffered from addiction issues and falling for abusive, criminal men. Sam is too gentle for this life. Whilst standing on the bridge he sees an older man, Vic, also standing on the wrong side of the railings. The meeting prevents both from following through their intentions and the two becomes friends – finding in one another a reason to keep living, and Sam finds his logical family.

Honeybee is a book about what and unaccepting society does to people who are different, and how love and acceptance can change an outsiders trajectory to one of self-discovery and self-acceptance. Here’s hoping that religious freedom bill gathers dust on the shelf until the silverfish are sated.

Honeybee has been subject to some debate over the efficacy of the story because ‘it was written by a cis man using predictable tropes’ – there is a view that writers should only write from their own experience and leave own voices to tell their stories themselves. My concern is that this limitation could result in very little on mainstream shelves about diversity, and marginal groups need allies to help drive change in mainstream hearts. Personally I was moved by Honeybee, it made me feel a lot of things and I wanted Sam to be ok, so that’s a good thing.