Book Reviews

The Happiest Man on Earth by Eddie Jaku

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Life can be beautiful if you make it beautiful. It is up to you.

Eddie Jaku always considered himself a German first, a Jew second. He was proud of his country. But all of that changed in November 1938, when he was beaten, arrested and taken to a concentration camp.

Over the next seven years, Eddie faced unimaginable horrors every day, first in Buchenwald, then in Auschwitz, then on a Nazi death march. He lost family, friends, his country.

Because he survived, Eddie made the vow to smile every day. He pays tribute to those who were lost by telling his story, sharing his wisdom and living his best possible life. He now believes he is the ‘happiest man on earth’.

Published as Eddie turns 100, this is a powerful, heartbreaking and ultimately hopeful memoir of how happiness can be found even in the darkest of times.

When a person who has lived for 100 years on this earth offers you life advice, you should listen. When this same person has also not only witnessed but experienced first-hand one of the greatest atrocities this world has ever seen, you not only listen, but you prepare to have your outlook on life completely changed.

Eddie takes us through his time as a prisoner in Auschwitz during World War II, and his life after the war. Each chapter contains a sliver of wisdom that Eddie lives his life by, and by the end of the book you will find your perception of the world and your own life have been changed. The writing in this book is simple and to the point; there is no flowery language or grandiose metaphors here. This only serves to further emphasise Eddie’s message of respect, kindness and love. He is a man who, despite all the horrors he has experienced, has such a positive outlook on life and on humanity.

My new friend Eddie’s message of happiness, love and, above all, hope, is a timely one, and one that we should all be paying attention to.

Rating: 5/5

Australian Publication Date: 1st August 2020

Book Reviews

You Were Made For Me by Jenna Guillaume

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The day I created a boy started out like any other.

Katie didn’t mean to create a boy. A boy like a long-lost Hemsworth brother: six-foot tall with floppy hair and eyes like the sky on a clear summer’s day; whose lips taste like cookie-dough and whose skin smells like springtime.

A boy who is completely devoted to Katie.

He was meant to be perfect.

But he was never meant to exist.

With this being her second novel, Jenna is fast becoming the rising star of the #LoveOzYA rom-com. While this is quite a different book to her debut What I Like About Me, it is just as enjoyable – I fell more in love with it the more I read.

Jenna’s writing is smart, funny, and accurately captures the contemporary teenage voice she is aiming for with her characters. With loads of pop-culture references, and a unique ‘Australian-ness’ to her setting, teens are sure to love this book.

Rating: 4.5/5

Australian Publication Date: 1st August 2020

Book Reviews

Top Ten Reads of 2019

40275288._SY475_The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon

At over 800 pages long, this is the big epic fantasy book I have always dreamed of. It has everything including kick-ass female characters, magic, epic battles and most importantly, dragons! The writing was beautiful to read, the world building was well thought out and researched, and the story was gripping. This is what Game of Thrones should have been.

What I Like About Me by Jenna Guillaume

The perfect summer beach read. This summer romance is typically Australian (family

9781760559120Christmas holiday) and features some very relatable elements (at 30, I still get my Dad to peel my prawns for me). One of the biggest points is that this book looks at body image positivity and promotes loving yourself and who you are at any size or shape. Written in diary format it is humourous and emotional and chock full of pop culture references. This is the book I wish had been around when I was sixteen years old.

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Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

I listened to this book as an audiobook, and I think that was the ideal format for this story. Told through a series of interviews with band members looking back on their time when they were one of the biggest bands of the 1970s, this book charts the rise and fall of the band with often-conflicting views on what happened. You leave the book wishing the songs and albums talked about were real. There is a small twist at the end, which is both heart breaking and surprising, but ultimately adds an extra layer to the story you didn’t even know was there. The audiobook features a full voice cast and that made it such a joy to listen to.

Darkdawn by Jay Kristoff9780008180089

The Nevernight saga is one of my favourite book trilogies’ and the final book did not disappoint. So much is packed in to this book that you feel like you need to read every word and every line just to take it all in. Getting attached to characters in a Kristoff book is always fraught with danger, and Darkdawn is no exception, and no matter how hard you try not to, you will get attached to them. The body count is high in this final book, and many reader tears will be shed, but ‘byss and blood, is it ever worth it!

the-toll-9781481497060_lgThe Toll by Neal Shusterman

Another fabulous last book in another brilliant trilogy. The Toll rounds off the Arc of a Scythe series and answers all of those questions the reader has been dying to have answered. The moral and ethical dilemmas faced in the first two books are still very much a part of this final chapter. These books are dystopian fiction at its finest. Prepare for tears but ultimately triumph.

On the Come Up by Angie Thomas

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I absolutely loved The Hate U Give, and it was always going to be a hard act to follow on from such a brilliant and successful debut. But On The Come Up is just as amazing as Thomas’ first book, cementing her as one of my auto-buy authors. This book is also set in Garden Heights and the main character Bri holds her own just as much as Starr did. The rap battles and lyrics were my favourite parts of this book, and I can’t wait to see what Angie Thomas writes next!

9780143793533The Place on Dalhousie by Melina Marchetta

I have a confession. The only Melina Marchetta book I ever read as a teen was Looking for Alibrandi, and I only ever read it once. So I was a bit nervous to read her latest offering, as it re-introduces many characters that have appeared in some of her other novels. I needn’t have worried because this book was a beautiful and emotional standalone read which carries just as much impact for readers who may not be familiar with Marchetta’s backlist. The writing is lyrical and the characters, always the strongest part of a Melina Marchetta novel, were real and flawed and relatable.

The Nancys by RWR McDonald9781760527334

I have never read a book quite like this one. The best way to describe it is, if Taika Waititi were to pen a mystery novel, it would look a lot like The Nancys. Although the main character of Tippy is eleven years old, this is definitely NOT a kid’s book. This book made me laugh many times over, with my favourite element being the cast of weird, wonderful and kooky supporting characters that we meet along the way. This is a wonderful mystery novel that will make you nostalgic for Nancy Drew books.

9781760295738Aurora Rising by Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff

The Illuminae files by Kaufman and Kristoff was the trilogy that really got me into sci-fi stories, so I was very excited when I heard they would be co-writing another sci-fi trilogy together. As is typical of a Kaufman/Kristoff novel, there is so much more going on than the main storyline we are initially presented with. The characters are brilliant and relatable, the action sequences are heart stopping and the stakes are as high as ever. And if none of that has sold you on this book, then maybe the promise of a sexy space elf will.

Troll Hunting by Ginger Gormantroll-229x350

I’m not a big non-fiction reader, so for a non-fiction title to make it into my top ten list is a pretty big deal. This book documents Gorman’s investigation into online trolling is so well researched, to the point of it personally impacting Gorman and her life and well being. The facts presented are mind-boggling and the stories of some of the victims of trolling are harrowing. No matter how much or how little you know about online trolling, this book is absolutely eye opening as to how harmful it can be, little law enforcement does about it, and how crucial it is for our legal system to play catch up with it. This book should be required reading for anyone who has any kind of an online presence (so, everyone).

Book Reviews

The Last Smile in Sunder City by Luke Arnold

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A former soldier turned PI tries to help the fantasy creatures whose lives he ruined in a world that’s lost its magic in a compelling urban fantasy by Black Sails actor Luke Arnold.

I’m Fetch Phillips, just like it says on the window. There are a few things you should know before you hire me:
1. Sobriety costs extra.
2. My services are confidential – the cops can never make me talk.
3. I don’t work for humans.

It’s nothing personal – I’m human myself. But after what happened, Humans don’t need my help. Not like every other creature who had the magic ripped out of them when the Coda came…
I just want one real case. One chance to do something good.
Because it’s my fault the magic is never coming back.

This book is Arnold’s debut novel and the first book in a new contemporary/urban fantasy series.

I’m going to be honest; the first chapter did not grab me. In fact, it left me rather underwhelmed and it read like someone new to writing wrote it. It took me about two chapters to get my head around the world this novel is set in, and there is a lot of instances of information dumping, especially early on in the book.

However, the further into the book I got, the more I found myself swept up in the story and enjoying it immensely. I have hopes that as this series goes on, the books will reveal more of the larger story, and give us some great minor plot lines, and that the writing will continue to improve with experience. This first book is my no means perfect, but it shows a lot of promise for the series to get better and better.

Despite the info dumping, I actually really did reading about the back history to the world, and the creation stories of all the different magical creatures, but I’m a bit of a history nerd like that. This book has the feel of a cross between Rivers of London and a hard boiled detective/crime fiction novel. If you enjoy the work of Ben Aaronovitch, then this book is definitely worth checking out.

Rating: 4/5

Australian Publication Date: 28th January 2020

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Topping & Company Booksellers, St. Andrews

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In August 2015 I did some travelling around Ireland, Scotland and England, and naturally, I visited all of the bookish places I possibly could in that time. Compared to Australia, Ireland and the UK have many, many, MANY more physical bookstores and it is a much bigger industry over there than it is here in Oz. Out of all the bookstores I visited (and that’s quite a lot!) my absolute favourite was Topping and Company Booksellers of St. Andrews in Scotland.

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My favourite thing about it is the fact that it looks EXACTLY like my ideal movie-style bookstore – wall to wall, floor to ceiling timber bookshelves, sliding bookshelf ladders (a book lovers dream!), comfy couches and chairs, little cosy nooks and just every surface covered in bookish goodness! I could have spent HOURS just basking in the glory of this gorgeous store!

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Another thing that really stood out was the genuine friendliness and helpfulness of the staff there. When I mentioned to one of the staff members that I work in a bookstore in Sydney, Australia, she told me how she got her start in bookstores in Sydney! She then proceeded to invite me to make myself comfortable on one of their couches and she went and got me a cup of tea and a plate of biscuits so I could sit back and enjoy the store (it all came out on a tray complete with matching teacup, saucer and teapot).

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One of my favourite things about bookstores in the UK generally, but especially at Topping and Company is the sheer number of signed editions of books! Compared to how many we get in bookstores in Australia, it was a little overwhelming trying to only pick a few to buy. As most authors – especially UK and US authors – tend to tour the UK when promoting their books, it stands to reason they would have more signed editions than us poor little forgotten bookstores in Australia.

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Topping and Company in St. Andrews still remains my favourite bookstore that I have ever visited.

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Book Reviews

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley

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I love a good historical fiction novel as I find it a really interesting and engaging way to learn more about periods and people in history. While The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is an historical fiction novel, it is one with a difference. There is a touch of magic in this one, which really appealed to me.

The story takes place in Victorian London in the 1880s. We are introduced to Thaniel who one day inexplicably finds an intricately and beautifully made gold pocket watch in his small rented apartment. Fast-forward six months, and this pocket watch mysteriously and inexplicably saves him from a fatal bomb blast that completely destroys Scotland Yard. Wanting answers, Thaniel goes in search of the maker of the watch. He discovers its maker is Keita Mori, a solitary Japanese immigrant. He forms a close friendship with Mori, although Thaniel feels as though Mori is deliberately keeping something from him. When Thaniel meets Grace Carrow, an eccentric physicist, he starts to question his friendship with Mori.

This novel was an absolute beauty to read. The atmosphere the author creates really puts you right into the heart of the story, and she expertly blends real historical happenings with little bits of fantasy and magic. The biggest strengths in this novel are the two main characters, Thaniel and Mori. They end up not feeling like characters, but like real people from an age gone by. Thaniel starts out as the typical polite, proper Englishman, and Mori the quirky, odd foreigner. As the story progresses, and as their relationship develops, each of them reveals more of their character, and soon they start to change and affect one another. They jump off the page with their complexities and their personalities.

I listened to this novel as an audiobook, and it was definitely they best way I could have consumed this story as it made everything seem so much more alive and realistic, despite the magical element in the tale.

This novel felt like what a steampunk-style novel done right should look like. I normally do not enjoy reading steampunk, but this book was right up my alley. A light hand and restraint from the author definitely made this a trope-free, Victorian fiction novel that has quickly become one of my favourites. Ultimately an examination of how much chance, coincidence and luck play a part in our lives, this novel is charming, beautiful, profound and simply a joy to read.

Rating: 5/5

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Picture Books

Picture books were my first introduction to stories, and ultimately played a big part in forming my love of books and stories. To this day, I still love a good picture book and am a firm believer that they are not just for young children! So, here are my Top Ten Picture Books.

pigcover#1 Pig the Pug – Aaron Blabey

I love all of Aaron Blabey’s picture books, but Pig the Pug has to be my favourite. In this book Pig is not willing to share his toys with his friend Trevor the sausage dog. However, Pig soon learns the hard way that sharing isn’t so bad after all! This book is great fun, with rhyming prose that kids love and a moral at the end of the story.

#2 Ida Always – Caron Levis & Charles Santosoida-always-9781481426404_hr

A beautiful and sad tale that is perfect for introducing the concept of grief to young children. Gus and Ida are polar bears who live in a zoo and are best friends. One day Ida gets sick, and Gus learns that she isn’t going to get better. Gus learns that even after Ida is gone, she will always be with him through the memories he has of her. This is a very moving book.

16101018#3 The Day the Crayons Quit – Drew Daywalt & Oliver Jeffers

One of my ’go-to’ picture book recommendations at work, this fantastic book tells the story of Duncan and his crayons. Duncan opens up his crayon box one day, only to find all of his crayons are gone! Each one has left him a note explaining why they have quit. This is a funny story that will have children and adults alike in stitches!

#4 Possum Magic – Mem Fox & Julie Vivaspossum-magic

An absolute Australian classic! Grandma Poss decides to use her bush magic to make Hush invisible in order to keep her safe. However, when Hush wants to be visable again, Grandma Poss can’t remember which specific food Hush needs to eat to break the spell. The two set out on a road trip around Australia sampling Aussie food staples such as ANZAC biscuits and Minties in an effort to find the right food item. This is a fun, whimsical story that beautifully showcases all things Australian.

9780140541120#5 Animalia – Graeme Base

Graeme Base’s books are the kind that can be enjoyed by kids of any age. Animalia is one of my favourites. Animalia creates a fun imaginary world where every letter of the alphabet has a story created out of words starting with that letter. It starts, naturally with “A is for an Armoured Armadillo Avoiding an Angry Alligator”. The fun of this book comes from finding all the hidden objects in each scene that start with the letter being showcased.

#6 Each Peach Pear Plum – Janet & Allan Ahlberg6193c55pyhl

This book has been a favourite of mine from a very young age. This beautiful rhyming book encourages young children to interact with various nursery rhyme and storybook characters, as they try to spy the different characters in each of the gorgeous illustrations. This book is an absolute classic that never gets old!

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#7 The Very Hungry Caterpillar – Eric Carle

Another absolute classic is The Very Hungry Caterpillar. This beautiful counting book is a hit with children due to its brightly coloured illustrations and the finger-sized holes for exploring. This book also shows children the life cycle of a caterpillar.

#8 Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy – Lynley Doddcover

This is another classic rhyming story that has long been a favourite of mine. Hairy Maclary decides to go for a walk through town. At each house he passes, one of his canine friends comes out and joins him. Eventually they all encounter Scarface Claw, the toughest, roughest cat in town, and this is where things get interesting. The terrific illustrations really cap off an engaging story.

the-fantastic-flying-books-of-mr-morris-lessmore-9780857079459_hr#9 The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore – William Joyce

This picture book speaks deeply to the booklover in me. It is a beautiful allegory about the healing and curative power of books, and that those who care for them will reap the benefits of them. This is a wonderful story that can be read at face value as a magical, fun story, or can be read with deeper meaning and metaphorical life lessons.

#10 Magic Beach – Alison Lester9781741144888

This book is another childhood favourite of mine. The illustrations are my favourite part of this book, and the story shows the power of the imagination of a child. The rhymes and make-believe stories within the book are lots of fun as well, and the depiction of life by the sea is very typically Australian.

Book Reviews

Mao’s Last Dancer by Li Cunxin

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In Mao’s Last Dancer Li Cunxin tells us the story of his life in China under the Communist regime of Chairman Mao. At a young age he is taken from his poor village and relocated to Beijing in order to study ballet as part of the Mao Cultural Revolution. As part of a cultural exchange trip, Li visits America in the late 1970s and begins to realise that the anti-American propaganda fed to them by the Chinese Communist Party may not in fact be true. He eventually defects to America – although not without drama – and later moves to and settles in Australia.

Much like Forty Autumns, one of the things that I think makes this a must-read is the fact that we don’t really know what life was like under these cruel regimes until you hear about it from a person who lived through it. We all know about these periods in history, and often study them in school, but you never really comprehend how it was until you read books like this one.

One of the themes that really struck a chord with me in this book was the struggle between individuality and conformity that Li experiences throughout his life. Often times, these struggles are illustrated through confronting scenes that Li witnesses, such as the public executions of counter–revolutionaries by firing squad. The turning point for Li is when he is initially denied permission to return to America to further improve his ballet training. He says “My beliefs were now completely altered after my experience with the ministry of culture and after having time to think about what I had seen in the West. Now I knew with absolute certainty, that I had been manipulated by Chairman Mao’s communist propaganda for many years.”

Having visited China myself, this book has had a particular impact on me. Even though things in China have vastly improved since Chairman Mao’s reign, there is still an element of terror, control and conformity imposed by the current Chinese Communist Party leaders. For example, when we visited Tiananmen Square, we were told not to mention anything about the 1989 Massacre when we were in the square because the government has cameras and microphones installed in order to deter any potential repeat of 1989. We were also told that if we mentioned it and were caught, we would likely be arrested, as the Chinese government still publicly maintain that the 1989 massacre never happened.

The book is emotional, heart-breaking, eye opening and inspiring. To have lived the life Li has, and to have ended up where he did is absolutely astounding. There were many times through my reading of the book where I got so angry at the treatment of the Chinese people by their leaders, and many more where I got goose bumps. This is one of the most evocative books I have ever read.

Rating: 5/5

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Murder on the Orient Express

Agatha Christie is undoubtedly the Queen of Crime. She wrote 66 detective novels, 14 short story collections, wrote the world’s longest-running play, and is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the best-selling novelist of all time. These are all monumental and incredibly significant achievements. And luckily for me, an Agatha Christie novel was my first introduction to the wonderful world of crime fiction.

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The Queen of Crime herself; Dame Agatha Christie

I remember when I was about 13 or 14 we were staying at my grandparents’ place down the South Coast of New South Wales. Every Saturday morning there is a market at Moruya, and like we did every time we were at my grandparents’ place, we visited the markets. Being a bookworm from a young age, I have always been drawn to the second-hand bookstalls at markets. This particular time, I remember my Mum picked up a thin, battered old book and showed it to me, saying that she had loved this author at my age. Seeing as the book was only $3, I bought it. That book was Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie. I had never really read books that weren’t specifically written for kids before, nor had I read a crime novel.

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Hercule Poirot as portrayed by David Suchet

At that age, I have to admit it did take me a little while to get used to the language of the books and the very proper way the characters speak – I mean, it was originally written in the 1930s! With Poirot being Belgian – not French, if you please! – I found the occasional French words and French phrases frustrating, as I didn’t understand them. And the strange abbreviations I hadn’t come across before; Mlle, M, and Mme! What were these strange combinations of letters! I eventually figured it all out and adjusted to the language, and could finally focus myself on the story being told.

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Murder on the Orient Express and the odd little character of Hercule Poirot absolutely blew me away! The attention to detail and precision of all the facts was astounding. All the red herrings, the twists and when you finally find out who the murderer is… wow! My mind was blown! I didn’t know that books like this existed! It absolutely revolutionised reading for me, and began my love of a good crime novel. Since being introduced to the Queen of Crime and her most famous detective, I have devoured many Hercule Poirot novels and continue to scour second-hand bookstalls at markets for more of these golden oldies.

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The Book Thief

The Book Thief by Australian author Markus Zusak tells the story of Liesel, a girl who is sent to live with a foster family near Munich during the Second World War. With the guidance of her foster father, she learns to read and develops an intense love of books and stories. They become irresistible to her, and whenever the opportunity presents itself she steals books from around her small town. She shares her stories with Max, a Jewish man that her foster parents are hiding from the Nazis. The book itself was brilliant and has been a best seller all over the world. I especially loved the fact that the novel itself is told from the point of view of Death and not from the point of view of Liesel, the main character. This creates a sense of foreboding and darkness in the novel, balanced out by the innocence and guileless morality of Liesel.

The 2013 film, starring Sophie Nélisse, Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson, was welcomed with a very split response from critics. Regardless, I really enjoyed the film version. This was another book-to-film adaptation that I think was done really well. Geoffrey Rush was excellent in the role of Liesel’s foster father and, in my opinion, stole the show. I thought Liesel’s foster mother in the books came across as rougher, more forbidding and more disgruntled than she did in the film. In the film I thought she seemed positively cuddly in comparison to her book character. The character of Death still narrates the film, but I felt he doesn’t have the same presence in the film that he has in the book. These are minor issues that I have with the film, and it is still a great adaptation of the book. I loved both the book and film for the fact that while the setting of Germany during WWII was important in the telling of the story, it wasn’t the central storyline itself, which is unusual for stories set in this historical period. I highly recommend everyone see this film.

 

Rating: Book screen-shot-2017-01-07-at-1-24-07-pm/ Movie screen-shot-2017-01-07-at-1-24-14-pm