Dukess, Karen (2019) The Last Book Party. H. Holt. A coming-of-age tale of Eve, a young woman with floundering literary ambitions, struggling to find her voice. During a Cape Cod summer Eve jumps at the chance to work as an assistant for famed New Yorker writer Henry Grey, only to discover that the literary world she so desperately wants to be a part of is not all that it seems. This 1980s period piece not only evokes a sense of place and youthful entanglements, but also highlights the politics of power and privilege that beset young women during this era. Delightful. Rating: 8.5/10.
Davidson, Jared (2019) Dead Letters: Censorship and Subversion in New Zealand 1914-1920. Otago UP. In an age where the state is increasing its surveillance power and clamping down on the language of prejudice, Davidson’s book reminds us of the fragility of privacy and of the right to express an opinion. Wartime censorship confiscated the mail of people with an ideological world-view perceived to be a threat to the state; their letters filed away for over 100 years, unread. This a book about repression and control, about people silenced and locked away, sometimes never heard of again – people until now with no voice. Fascinating political and social history. Rating: 9/10.
Sandys, Elspeth (219) A Communist in the Family: Searching for Rewi Alley. Otago UP. In 2017 Elspeth Sandys travelled to China with her Alley whānau to commemorate the ninetieth anniversary of New Zealander Rewi Alley’s arrival in China. The two strands of this travel-biography plots Sandys’ journey through modern China, and narrates Rewi Alley’s extraordinary story from his early life to his latter-day status as national treasure, in both China and New Zealand. This very personal biography shines a new light on Rewi Alley’s life, and the China story. An excellent, but solid read. Rating: 9/10.
Foster, Sara (2019) You Don’t Know Me. Simon & Schuster. Noah Carruso has never forgotten his first crush Lizzie Burdett, his brother Tom’s girlfriend, who mysteriously disappeared over a decade ago. Now there is to be an inquest into Lizzie’s death which means he will have to give voice to his suspicions about Tom, just when he has met Alice a girl with her own dark past. Can Noah and Alice share their deepest secrets with each other? And, is the truth worth telling if it will destroy everything you hold dear? A darkly compelling thriller. Rating: 8.5/10.
Patchett, Ann (2019) The Dutch House. Bloomsbury. When Danny and Maeve’s father marries Andrea they are banished from their beloved Dutch House. The Dutch House is a opulent folly, on the outskirts of Philadelphia, that was bought for their modest mother by their self-made property developer father. The enforced exile holds the siblings captive through the decades with the betrayal placed squarely on the shoulders of the person who still lives there. A tale of grief and the indelible bonds of family, place and time on our whole lives. Poignant storytelling. Rating: 9/10.
Griswold, Eliza (2018) Amity and Prosperity: One family and the fracturing of America. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. When fracking came to her hometown of Amity, Pennsylvania, nurse Stacey Haney is wooed by natural gas leases. Soon trucks come rumbling past her farm and a drill site is set up on a neighbouring hill. Then animals and pets die and a mysterious illness starts to afflict her children. The energy company denies there is anything wrong with the water and air. Stacey and her neighbours begin to investigate and pursue a lawsuit against the Texas-based energy company for poisoning the environment. Can justice be served? A deeply human account of the struggle to balance energy needs with the need to protect our environment, and the cost to rural communities. Winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction. Rating: 9/10.
Lukianoff, Greg & Jonathan Haidt (2018) The Coddling of the American Mind: How good intentions and bad ideas are setting up a generation for failure. Allen Lane. Whilst this book has a focus on the US it reflects the iGen (Gen Z) crisis happening in many of the world’s liberal democracies. The central premise is the culture of “safetyism” and the negation of resilience – “we have taught a generation of students the mental habits of anxious, depressed, polarized people”. Safetyism, innate in modern parenting, is increasingly being woven into education, and is alive and well on college campuses, where words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or offence are encouraging untruths, microaggression, and conflicts. The authors argue that the consequences of over-protecting young people are dire indeed. Timely wisdom. Rating: 8.5/10.
Cleeves, Ann (2019) The Long Call. Macmillan. This police procedural introduces a new detective in Matthew Venn, and a new series (Two-Rivers), by the prolific UK crime writer Ann Cleeves. Venn is taking on his first major case in the Two Rivers region of North Devon – investigating the murder of “lost sheep” Simon Walden. As the secrets of Simon’s life and death are unravelled there are multiple connections to the Day Centre at The Woodyard, a haven for vulnerable people, managed by Venn’s husband Jonathan. As Venn’s present and strict evangelical past collide can he solve this increasingly complex case? Great pace, characterisation and local colour. Rating: 8.5/10.
Chang, Jung (2019) Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister: Three Women at the Heart of Twentieth-Century China. Cape. The Soong sisters, Ei-ling, Ching-ling, and May-ling, were born in the twilight years of imperial China and were most notably married to three of the most powerful men of China – Sun Yat-sen, Chiang Kai-shek, and HH Kung. The sisters’ American education, family background, English fluency, and glamour put them at the top of Shanghai society and when they married they embraced powerful roles at the centre of China’s twentieth-century transformation. The paradox of their status was that they were only able to exercise influence through their deeply flawed husbands, whose political machinations are at the heart of this group biography. Epic. Rating: 9/10.