2013 Staff and Reader Picks

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The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin

Testament - Dec 2013

The Testament of Mary is a familiar story with a new twist in which circumstances surrounding Jesus Christ’s crucifixion are regaled from his mother Mary’s memories. This intriguing book inspires many emotions, such as love, rage and humour, but it will depend on the individual’s own religious beliefs as to how they will interpret and be affected by this poignant story.

Above all, Mary was a mother who had unconditional love for her son as she attempted to offer him advice and support, which was largely ignored as Jesus believed he knew best. This is a familiar situation confronting mothers today. Mary was concerned about the company her son Jesus kept and considered his friends to be the neighbourhood ‘hangers on’ or misfits within the community, and who were responsible for leading him astray. Nor did Mary believe that her son could perform miracles as sited in the remarkable wedding scene where the water supposedly turned to wine but Mary stated with all the drinking and all the jugs they were probably mixed up. She futilely attempted to warn Jesus of his fate at the wedding, but to no avail, as Jesus was determined to follow his destiny. No mother wishes to see her son die before she does, and particularly not by torturous crucifixion.

Colm Toibin’s beautiful writing humanizes Jesus’ mother Mary, and simultaneously leaves the reader wanting justice for Jesus, a man who was not afraid to speak out as he demonstrated his strong leadership qualities to the people.

December 2013 staff pick reviewed by Diana - Library Assistant

A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

Owen - Nov 2013

John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany is one of my favourite books. I first read this book in 1989 when it was first published and couldn’t put it down. Owen Meany is a character that will stay with you long after you finish the last page.

This book has so many themes it’s hard to know where to begin. I guess its overriding theme is one of faith, and it manages to convey this message without preaching. It also has one of the best first lines: "I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice - not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God. I am a Christian because of Owen Meany."

Don’t get me wrong there are many laugh out loud moments in this highly original, inspiring story. As usual John Irving manages to make the outlandish realistic with his quirky wonderful characters. Set in New Hampshire narrated by John Wheelright who recollects the story of his childhood and friendship with Owen Meany and how this influenced his adulthood. I loved this book for its symbolism and original characters (especially the stuffed armadillo), its engaging and humorous narrative and its statement about the relationship between faith and doubt.

November 2013 staff pick reviewed by Denise - Librarian

What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty

What Alice

This is a story about a woman who has a bump on the head and loses the memory of the last ten years of her life. My first thought was - what a cliché! But this situation was handled with great sensitivity and originality.

So many questions arise for Alice - why is she getting a divorce? How did she get so organised? And who are these three little strangers that call her Mum? You will have to read the book to find out what happens! This is a well-written and often funny account that made me think about the implications to my life and others if this were to happen to me. It also gave me pause for thought about how we can get entrenched positions and could benefit from a fresh look at things.

Liane Moriarty is a Sydney writer. I have read three of her other books and would recommend them all.

October 2013 staff pick reviewed by Liz - Library Assistant

Eight Months on Ghazzah Street by Hilary Mantel

Ghazzah

This novel is based on Hilary Mantel’s experience in Saudi Arabia and explores different perspectives and misunderstandings between cultures focusing on Islam and the West. The novel is written through the eyes of a westerner Fran, whose husband is posted to Saudi Arabia.

The book traces Fran’s transition from having a fulltime career in England and the adjustments she makes to Saudi life. I felt the book had a brooding, dark, fearful feeling and I wasn’t quite sure where this would end and what would happen to the western values that Fran held. I couldn’t put it down.

September 2013 staff pick reviewed by Joan - Librarian

Shock Value by Jason Zinoman

Shock

This book is an excellent and well researched overview of how a group of young directors and writers revolutionised the way horror films were made in the 1960s and 70s. The New York Times critic Jason Zinoman's Shock Value focuses on young filmmakers who were influenced by the horrific images of the Vietnam War and turbulence of the decade that they had witnessed on television and how they managed to bring a new realism, energy and social commentary to a genre that had been previously written off by Hollywood and film audiences.

Containing recollections and interviews from some of the most influential filmmakers of the last 50 years, the book focuses on films like Rosemary’s Baby, Night of the Living Dead, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Exorcist. This is recommended for anyone who enjoys the horror genre and cinema in general and is an excellent addition to the Library’s already fantastic collection of books about cinema.

August 2013 staff pick reviewed by Fiona - Weekend Coordinator

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Bring - July 2013

Bring Up The Bodies (2012) by Hilary Mantel is simply great dramatic historical fiction – well researched, superbly paced, highly informative, and constantly engaging. This is the second book in Mantel’s trilogy about the life and rise of (in)famous Tudor statesman and key servant of Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell, which has followed in its equally great predecessor’s (Wolf Hall, 2009) footsteps in winning the Man Booker Prize.

Starting in 1535, Cromwell has come far from his humble origins: becoming the chief adviser to his king; accumulating many aristocratic enemies along the way; and furthering the divisive English Reformation. To survive the changing circumstances, he must take part in the famous destruction of King Henry’s second wife – who Cromwell helped placed there – Anne Boleyn.

While the novel maintains the high standards of writing Mantel set in the first book – it is not hard to enjoy Bring Up The Bodies without any knowledge of the historical period at all. Mantel masterfully weaves key background information throughout the story in such a way as to compliment the growing suspense. The subtle humour, great characters, smart dialogue, and unique perspective of Cromwell as storyteller, all combine to make this a book that is very entertaining and hard to put down.

July 2013 staff pick reviewed by Tim - Library Assistant

The Cold, Cold Ground by Adrian McKinty

Staff Pick - June 2013

This is an excellent police procedural set in the days before mobile phones, internet and DNA testing. I listened to it on my iPad after downloading the audiobook from Woollahra Library’s website.

What makes this book stand out is the setting – Northern Ireland in 1981. Men are on hunger strike at the Maze prison. Rioters are on the streets of Belfast. Detective Sergeant Sean Duffy of the Royal Ulster Constabulary is assigned to investigate a killing involving gunshots and a severed hand. He soon becomes convinced that a serial killer with a sexual motive is responsible but his colleagues are not so sure - any psychopath who wants to kill a lot of people can do so by joining the IRA or one of several Protestant paramilitary groups: "We don’t do serial killers".

This is a fast paced murder investigation set against a background of Belfast where unemployment is at a record high, Margaret Thatcher is refusing to negotiate with the hunger strikers, speculation about Lady Di’s wedding details and the Yorkshire Ripper trial, compete for newspaper headlines.

From the language of the opening paragraph "The riot had taken on a beauty of its own. Arcs of gasoline fire under the crescent moon…. You needed a Picasso for this scene, not a poet" to Duffy’s daily routine of checking under his car for bombs, McKinty draws a picture of country that has gone mad. Highly recommended.

Woollahra Library has this book and its sequel I Hear the Sirens in the Street - released this year - in print.

June 2013 staff pick reviewed by Trish - Double Bay Collection Services Officer

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

Casual - May 2013

The Casual Vacancy is J.K. Rowling’s highly anticipated first novel for adults. J.K. Rowling is the author of the bestselling Harry Potter series of seven books, published between 1997 and 2007, which have sold more than 450 million copies worldwide, are distributed in more than 200 territories, translated into 74 languages, and have been turned into eight blockbuster films. After the phenomenal success of the Harry Potter series there was a great deal of hype leading up the release of The Casual Vacancy. Does it live up to the hype?

In this tragi-comedy meets morality tale, J.K. Rowling gives her verdict on England's current crop of parents: You are failing your children!

When Barry Fairbrother, authentic local hero, mentor of neglected schoolchildren, and village councillor, dies young, he leaves a void that the good burgers of not-so-sleepy Pagford conspicuously fail to fill. While the self-absorbed adults squabble the children run wild with the inevitable tragic results. In the aftermath there are hints of the necessary character resurfacing in unexpected places.

This is A.J. Cronin updated for our age.

May 2013 staff pick reviewed by Rod - Double Bay Library Officer

The Jewels of Paradise by Donna Leon

Jewel 2 - Apr 2013

Donna Leon is masterful at bringing Venice and all the particular foibles of Venetians to life.

The central character here is a musicologist called Caterina Pelligrini, who is given the fascinating and secret assignment of searching for treasure in recently discovered papers belonging to an obscure baroque composer. Caterina's research process itself is fascinating, as she starts to tap into the dark political and religious undercurrent of the past.

Part of Leon’s talent is the way that she makes such strong connections between the political machinations of the baroque period and the intrigues of present day Italy, adding to the suspense and sense of danger.

I feel that this book is from a more female perspective than her usual ones, the main friendships here being between women. Overall, it was beautifully written and enjoyable.

April 2013 staff pick reviewed by Liz - Weekend Library Assistant

Sincerely: Further adventures in the art of correspondence from Women of Letters by Marieke Hardy and Michaela McGuire

Sincerely large - Mar 2013

Sincerely is the second collection by Women of Letters, a literary salon with the aim of celebrating the lost art of letter writing. Women of letters is a regular literary afternoon event held across Australia and co -curated by the ABC’s First Tuesday book club panellist and writer Marieke Hardy and writer and columnist Michaela McGuire. Panellists are given a topic or subject in advance and are then required to write and read their letters aloud to an audience.

The writers featured in this collection range from authors and playwrights, comedians, musicians, and personalities like Ita Buttrose, Di Morrissey, Kamahl, Shaun Micallef and Hamish Blake. The collection of letters are broken up into subjects such as to the woman who changed my life, love letters, complaint letters, the song I wished I’d written and to the photo that I wish had never been taken. The letters are moving, touching and often hilarious. Highlights include actor Toby Schmitz, journalist George Negus and author Michael Robotham’s letters to the women who changed their lives, Leonie Carmen and Libbi Gorr’s declarations to their most treasured possessions and comedian Lou Sanz’s apology letter to her nine year old self.

A great book to dip in and out of, full of amusing and heartfelt letters and a bit of an insight into the minds and personal stories of some of Australia’s talented artists and identities. In an era of tweets, texts and Facebook updates it’s great to see that the art of letter writing is still alive and well.

March 2013 staff pick reviewed by Fiona - Weekend Coordinator Double Bay Central Library

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

Johnson

Train Dreams was one of three contenders for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2012, but the jury failed to agree on a winner and the prize was withheld. Go figure. This slim little novel - a novella really - is a tiny masterpiece. A sweeping and surreal third-person historical novel, Train Dreams covers that iconic American dreamscape of the Wild West. But this isn't exactly a wild west that we have visited before, nor is this a voice with which we are quite familiar.

This is the American West on the edge of the twentieth century; a West which in the scope of a single lifetime will be irrevocably changed. The main character is Robert Grainier: itinerant labourer, building bridges and felling trees for the rapidly expanding nation. He is no man, he is all men. He is uneducated, unambitious, and not much given to reflection. The story is told in dust dry prose which nonetheless, sparkles regularly with gems of dialogue. As one of the minor characters says "I worked on a peak outside Bisbee, Arizona, where we were only eleven or twelve miles from the sun. It was a hundred and sixteen degrees on the thermometer, and every degree was a foot long. And that was in the shade. And there weren't no shade."

This is a beautifully written, haunting, and ultimately unsentimental sepia-toned look at a man whose largely unmarked life is touched by wonder, magic, and great tragedy.

February 2013 staff pick reviewed by Julie - Paddington Library Assistant

Family History: Digging Deeper by Simon Fowler

Family History

Family History: Digging Deeper is an excellent book for anyone who wants to stay up-to-date with the latest in family history research.

Simon Fowler gives advice on online resources, suggestions for useful but obscure records and archives, answers to brick walls, and comprehensive notes and bibliography.

This book is very well written and provides links to fascinating websites, though it is probably most useful for United Kingdom family history research.

January 2013 staff pick reviewed by Trish - Double Bay Librarian