Sisters Under the Rising Sun by Heather Morris Book Review 4/5
From the publisher:
In the midst of WWII, an English musician, Norah Chambers, places her eight-year-old daughter Sally on a ship leaving Singapore, desperate to keep her safe as the island falls to the Japanese Army.
Australian nurse Nesta James has enlisted to tend to Allied troops. But as Japanese troops overrun the island she joins the terrified cargo of people, including the heartbroken Norah, crammed aboard the Vyner Brooke merchant ship. Only two days later, they are bombarded from the air off the coast of Indonesia, and in a matter of hours, the Vyner Brooke has sunk.
After surviving 24 hours in the sea, Nesta and Norah reach the beaches of a remote island, only to be captured and held in one of the notorious Japanese POW camps. The camps are places of starvation and brutality, where disease runs rampant.
But even here joy can be found, in music, where Norah’s ‘voice orchestra’ has the power to transport the internees out of the squalor and into the light. Sisters in arms, Norah and Nesta devote themselves to the women’s survival while discovering their own extraordinary reserves of courage, love and strength.
Sisters under the Rising Sun is a story of women in war: a novel of sisterhood, bravery and friendship in the darkest of circumstances, from the multimillion-copy bestselling author of The Tattooist of Auschwitz, Cilka’s Journey and Three Sisters.
We glimpse the pain of death, the worry of tropical disease and the horrific violence from the camp guards, but the story carries on, and the women carry on, as they must.
Sisters Under the Rising Sun is based on the true accounts of a group of women captured during WW2 and interred in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. We learn of a group of Australian nurses, serving with the Australian Army, and meet others who are also taken prisoner.
The story is mainly told by Nesta James, a nurse, and Norah Chambers, a musician from England. Once captured, the women are sent to a prisoner of war camp in Indonesia. Sisters Under the Rising Sun tells of their experiences in the 3 years and 7 months that they were incarcerated in the camps. The women were often split up and moved to different locations, and subjected to starvation, unsanitary conditions and hard labour. This is a hard-hitting read, but written in a style that somehow sets the reader away from the terrible things happening to the women. For me, it took a while to get used to the writing – I loved Morris’s previous books The Tattooist of Auschwitz and Cilka’s Journey immediately, but this wasn’t an instant connection. However, as I progressed through the book, the writing style took on a different meaning for me.
For me, I initially felt the writing style a little saccharine in the description of the nurses, a little lacking in depth – short paragraphs and a lack of detail beyond the dialogue. However, this began to evoke a sort of disconnection from the horrific experiences of the nurses during their incarceration in the camps. The nurses are stoic, practical and the deep camaraderie and sisterhood between the women is obviously a source of strength between the group, when conditions, supplies and willpower are slowly eroded away in the camps. It made me wonder that the lack of much emotion in the writing reflected the trauma and damage that these women must have experienced. The factual recounting of deaths as camp conditions deteriorated and illness took over, the brutal punishments endured by some of the women described in just a few sentences, and the way that hierarchy shaped the way they managed to survive in the camp – we are there, but not quite there. As I got used to this, and imagined this grim form of survival, the lack of emotion actually made it more real, somehow.
Having witnessed massacres of their colleagues and friends, a shipwreck and the loss of children and partners, the women find strength in hierarchy and assigning meaning to their days. The division of labour, the meaning given to certain tasks, the grim humour in the face of starvation. Sorting weevils from the rice rations, finding solace in song and music. The focus of the writing on the details of the connection between the women and the strength they found in each other, rather than the horrific experiences they were sharing, showcases the importance of the bond between the group. Kind words and support between each other are given precedence. Individual experiences and acts of solidarity are detailed, with the harrowing events of every day camp life being described in an almost factual way by the women. We glimpse the pain of death, the worry of tropical disease and the horrific violence from the camp guards, but the story carries on, and the women carry on, as they must.
Morris details the real-life stories of the women at the end of the book, and that reminder that these events happened to real people makes the book even more hard hitting. Their stories are truly important, and should not be forgotten. A difficult read, but one that is so worth it.
Thank you #Netgalley for the ARC 🙂
The Maniac by Benjamín Labatut Book Review 5/5
From the publisher:
John von Neumann was a titan of science. A Hungarian wunderkind who revolutionized every field he touched, his mathematical powers were so exceptional that Hans Bethe – a Nobel Prize-winning physicist – thought he might represent the next step in human evolution.
After seeking the foundations of mathematics during his youth in Germany, von Neumann emigrated to the United States, where he became entangled in the power games of the Cold War; he designed the world’s first programmable computer, invented game theory, pioneered AI and digital life, and helped create the atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He was the darling of the military industrial complex, but when illness unmoored his mind, his work pushed further into areas beyond human comprehension and control.
The MANIAC places von Neumann at the center of a literary triptych about the dark foundations of our modern world and the nascent era of AI. It begins with Paul Ehrenfest, an Austrian physicist and close friend of Einstein, who fell into despair when he saw science and technology become tyrannical forces; it ends a hundred years later, in the showdown between the South Korean Go Master, Lee Sedol, and the AI program AlphaGo.
Braiding fact with fiction, Benjamín Labatut takes us on a journey to the frontiers of rational thought, where invention outpaces human understanding and offers godlike power, but takes us to the brink of Armageddon.
Review contains spoilers.
The Maniac…hints at a darkness present at the limits of knowledge…the transmutation of that knowledge into ultimate power…
Labatut’s first novel, ‘When we Cease to understand the World’, absolutely knocked me sideways. I’d never read anything like it – a heady, manic mash up of truth, fiction, and something almost in between the two. It’s a book that’s stayed in my mind ever since I first read it, and now, with The Maniac, Labatut is back and I’m glad to report it absolutely doesn’t disappoint.
The Maniac tells the story of mathematical genius Janus (John) von Neumann, from the points of view of those surrounding him, following his journey from precocious childhood, his achievements in physics and mathematics, and his work on the atomic bomb. The Maniac is hard reading in places, with Labatut’s skilful weaving of fact and fiction painting a devastating picture of the interplay between genius and callousness. Particularly hard hitting is von Neumann’s calculations of the exact height from which to drop the bombs for maximum devastation and his abstinence in signing a joint letter to President Eisenhower, in which a group of nuclear physicists hope that the bombs they developed are never used.
The main section of the book, concerning von Neumann, is told by those who work and live alongside him – school friends, colleagues, spouses. The overall picture is chilling, detailed and ultimately devastating. I found Labatut’s writing to show a sort of ease with which horrific weapons can be developed in the name of scientific advancement, and an apparent casualness in the work of some of the most intelligent minds employed to work on those weapons. The Maniac differs in tone from Labatut’s previous book – although the commentary concerning von Neumann’s seeming lack of morality may touch on similar concepts. At what point does genius become madness? The Maniac, however, hints at a darkness present at the limits of knowledge – not madness, individually, but the transmutation of that knowledge into ultimate power and the consequences that follow.
The Maniac begins, and ends, with separate sections which seem to be mostly factual, although there is no indication as to which parts may or may not be fictionalised – and as someone unversed in the intricacies of chess tournaments, I would have no idea! The book begins with an account of Paul Ehrenfest, a physicist, becoming increasingly disillusioned by developments in the field and overwhelmed by societal implications for his disabled son. Terribly, Ehrenfest kills his son and commits suicide immediately afterwards. For me, this opening chapter has echoes of When We Cease To Understand The World – the tipping point between genius and madness. After von Neumann’s death, the book ends with a detailed account of the development of artificial intelligence, specifically relating to chess and the game Go, and the ability to defeat human players. As we enter this new world of AI and unknown power, we need to remember the consequences that may follow when pushing the limits of knowledge. A full 5 stars – I loved this.
Thank you to #Netgalley for the ARC 🙂
Looking Glass Sound Book Review 4/5
From the publisher: “Writers are monsters. We eat everything we see… In a windswept cottage overlooking the sea, Wilder Harlow begins the last book he will ever write. It is the story of his childhood companions and the shadowy figure of the Daggerman, who stalked the New England town where they spent their summers. Of a horror that has followed Wilder through the decades. And of Sky, Wilder’s one-time friend, who stole his unfinished memoir and turned it into a lurid bestselling novel, The Sound and the Dagger. This book will be Wilder’s revenge on Sky, who betrayed his trust and died without ever telling him why. But as he writes, Wilder begins to find notes written in Sky’s signature green ink, and events in his manuscript start to chime eerily with the present. Is Sky haunting him? And who is the dark-haired woman drowning in the cove, whom no one else can see? No longer able to trust his own eyes, Wilder feels his grip on reality slipping. And he begins to fear that this will not only be his last book, but the last thing he ever does. Discover the new dark thriller from the bestselling author of The Last House on Needless Street.”
A book that you will want to read in one sitting – page-turning, addictive, and thoroughly unsettling.
Wilder’s parents inherit a cottage in laid back Whistler Bay. Spending a summer there, he meets Harper and Nat, building a close friendship over the following months – set against the unsettling background of local legends, specifically a killer named the Daggerman. What seems to start as an idyllic teenage summer starts to become something more, and events come to a head with a gruesome discovery. Years later, Wilder returns to Whistler Bay to complete his book about the events of that summer, and to make sense of the events that changed his life. However, things were not – are not – what they seemed.
This truly is a book of two halves. I was drawn further and further into the story, but towards the end I was wondering just what was going on! Safe to say, nothing is as it seemed – I absolutely did not see the end coming, at all. The story flits between timelines and characters, giving an uneasy feel which is apt, but makes for a confusing read. I’m still not too sure what actually happened in the build up to the final revelation, and I’m still not sure how I feel about that – I love a storyline with twists and turns, however this one left me spinning! I’d have liked to spend more time with the events towards the end of the book – maybe a slower reveal, as the final fast pace was a contrast to the slow build up. I wanted more richness, I wanted to explore the events further, I wanted to understand and spend time in those delicious dark details.
This is my first Catriona Ward book, and from reading other reviews the twists and turns seem to be a hallmark of Ward’s style – I’m so tempted to re-read and get a better purchase on the events that transpired in Whistler Bay. One thing is for sure though – it’s quite dark and very, very twisty, although I wouldn’t call it a horror. I honestly found the last few chapters hard to follow, but I also enjoyed the rollercoaster ride that had me thinking “did that actually just happen?!” at multiple points – I loved the way the story suddenly seemed to drop off a cliff and transform into something altogether more sinister, but it was very close to the line of possibly being too twisty for me – I’m still undecided. Although it’s made me want to seek out more books by Catriona Ward, so that can only be a good thing!
Looking Glass Sound was published on 20th April 2023.
Thank you to Netgalley from the ARC of this novel!
The Square of Sevens Book Review 5/5
From the publisher:
“Laura Shepherd-Robinson’s The Square of Sevens is an epic and sweeping novel set in Georgian high society, a dazzling story offering up mystery, intrigue, heartbreak, and audacious twists.
‘My father had spelt it out to me. Choice was a luxury I couldn’t afford. This is your story, Red. You must tell it well . . .’
A girl known only as Red, the daughter of a Cornish fortune-teller, travels with her father making a living predicting fortunes using the ancient method: the Square of Sevens. When her father suddenly dies, Red becomes the ward of a gentleman scholar.
Now raised as a lady amidst the Georgian splendour of Bath, her fortune-telling is a delight to high society. But she cannot ignore the questions that gnaw at her soul: who was her mother? How did she die? And who are the mysterious enemies her father was always terrified would find him?
The pursuit of these mysteries takes her from Cornwall and Bath to London and Devon, from the rough ribaldry of the Bartholomew Fair to the grand houses of two of the most powerful families in England. And while Red’s quest brings her the possibility of great reward, it also leads into her grave danger . . .”
Although The Square of Sevens is a long read, I loved every minute of it. I’m a big fan of Laura Shepherd-Robinson and this novel is another great read. A riotous ride through the 1700’s, we follow narrator Red and her journey through the highs and lows of society, plying her trade as a cartomancer.
Previously travelling with her father, reading cards, Red becomes a ward of the wealthy Mr Antrobus after her father passes away. Red’s skills in cartomancy bring her to the high society of Bath, where she uncovers information about her family that starts her on a quest to uncover the truth. As I read on, I got the feeling that there was something else at play – things are not always as they seem!
The story moves location often, covering Devon, Cornwall, London and Bath. As the layers of the characters were peeled back, the plot thickens and I found myself grasped by who, or what was going to surprise me next. A particular highlight were the characters and dark secrets of ‘Leighfindell’ – an endless trove of gossip and potentially ruinous family affairs – as events pick up pace, the huge manor house was an excellent backdrop for it all to play out.
I loved Red as a narrator and was truly invested in the journey – every chapter brings further levels to the story and there are both wonderful and odious characters galore, which I loved! I was gripped – it’s a real page-turner. The ending was an absolute surprise to me – I think I actually gasped out loud. Brilliantly researched and full of colour, vibrancy, twists and turns, I fully recommend this as a chunky holiday read or a book to fully escape into. Loved it!
The Square of Sevens is published on 22nd June 2023.
Thank you #Netgalley for the ARC of this novel!
SOUTH BY BABAK LAKGHOMI, 5/5
From the publisher: “South is a haunting and hallucinatory reimagination of life in a world under totalitarianism, and an individual’s quest for truth, agency, and understanding.
B, a journalist, travels to the South of an unnamed desert country for a mysterious mission to write a report about the recent strikes on an offshore oil rig. From the beginning of his trip, he is faced with a cruel and broken landscape of drought and decay, superstitious believers of evil winds and spirits, and corrupt entities focused on manipulation and censorship. As he tries to defend himself against his unknown enemies, we learn about his father’s disappearance, his fading love with his wife, and his encounter with an unknown woman. A puzzle-like novel about totalitarianism, surveillance, alienation, and guilt that questions the forces that control us.”
South is a novel that has taken me a while to process – the bleak, blunt prose is divisive and initially hard to get along with, but since I’ve finished it, my mind has filled in more and more layers. I think it needs time to digest, and it’s a novel I will definitely return to.
This dystopian story follows B, as he goes undercover to join the crew of an oil rig. The world is stark, grey and jarring. It is almost our world, yet it is not. B’s mission to write a report about recent strikes on the rig slowly falls apart, and in doing so, reveals more details about B’s past, his father’s mysterious disappearance and his relationship. As the novel unwinds, so does the structure of B’s life – the surveillance and authoritarianism of this dystopian world packs a punch against a hazy, dreamlike background.
The writing is minimal and almost harsh, with Lakghomi eschewing details that initially I wished were present. I finished the novel feeling confused and almost empty – a feeling which, on reflection, echoes the style of writing well, and is not necessarily negative. Lakghomi conjours the feeling of a world that is not just teetering on the brink of something dark but has stepped over the precipice and is now in free fall. There is a creeping, insidious sense of dystopia that lodges itself in your mind and really makes you think. It is a haunting and somewhat uncomfortable read, but that is what makes it great.
South is published on 12th September 2023.
Dundurn Press (Canada, available 15th Aug 2023)
Thank you #Netgalley for the ARC of this novel!
The Revelations, Erik Hoel 5/5
An intellectual soup of consciousness, genius and animal testing with a suspicious death thrown into the mix – The Revelations is hard to describe, but very, very good.
After an intellectual breakdown of sorts whilst studying his previous PhD programme, Kierk is living in his car, having left the PhD programme. However, he has an offer of a place on a prestigious programme to study the nature of consciousness. Last minute, he decides to accept the place.
I was expecting to dislike Kierk, but found him surprisingly likeable, along with the other students on the course. Following Kierk’s manic thought processes is great – there is a lot of discussion of consciousness theory which I found fascinating but not overbearing, and I enjoyed the lengths he puts himself through to push his mind to the next level.
The sudden death of one of the students places the others under suspicion, along with an animal rights group that has been infiltrating the consciousness research facility. Along with fellow student Carmen, Kierk sets out to discover just what happened. The descriptions of the testing facility are very realistic and could be upsetting – I found myself clearly picturing the suffering these animals go through.
I enjoyed the slightly disconcerting atmosphere of the book, toying with our idea of reality. The ending was sudden – and I think I’m going to go back and re-read it – I imagine there are more layers to this than I picked up on the first reading! Overall I really enjoyed it – a book that challenged me and really made me think.
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(This review previously appeared on my past blog, One Empty Shelf. Thank you to Netgalley for the opportunity to review this book).
The Dictator’s Muse, Nigel Farndale 4/5
The Dictator’s Muse is set during the Berlin Olympics of the 1930’s. Hitler is taking power and the book focuses on Leni Riefenstahl, a film-maker popular with the Third Reich, whom Hitler has requested capture the Olympics.
Competing in the Olympics is British athlete Kim Newlands. Along with his socialite girlfriend Connie, he joins the Blackshirts, who sponsor him to compete. Alun Pryce is a communist set on infiltrating the Blackshirts. Acting undercover, he finds his way into Kim and Connie’s lives, and the three become inextricably intertwined, a relationship built on lies and misdirection with heart-wrenching consequences.
As the three arrive at the Olympics and meet Leni, the story unfurls. Leni is moving in dangerous circles, and the writing is suspenseful and gripping, showing us the knife-edge that Leni is balancing on in her relationship with the Third Reich and Hitler himself. In the present day, Sigrun Meier is attempting to piece together Leni’s life and work. Via her investigations, we discover what happened to the Leni’s film of the unknown athlete at the Olympics, and also what happened to Alun, Connie and Kim.
The ending seemed a little far-fetched and convenient for me, and I felt that the author could have delved into Leni Riefenstahl’s relationship with the Third Reich further, as well as the history of the Blackshirts and those who worked against them – as someone with little knowledge of this period in time, I felt as though the political factions took somewhat of a backseat to the characters and their stories and would have appreciated more background on what each group represented.
The characters themselves are excellently portrayed, however, and this is what makes the book such a great read. I was gripped by this book, more than I expected. It is a subject area I know little about and this book has piqued my interest, I really want to find out more about Leni Riefenstahl and her relationship with the Nazis, as well as the events surrounding the Berlin Olympics and the athletes competing.
I’d definitely recommend this book to anyone wanting a thrilling, intense read.
Buy this book here:
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(This review previously appeared on my past blog, One Empty Shelf. Thank you to Netgalley for the opportunity to review this book).
I love old maps. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s the lure of a seemingly quieter time, an expanse of fields and greenery. I’m fascinated by comparing old and new maps, to see what’s changed, names of roads hinting at old structures and pathways.
Luckily our local second-hand bookshop always has a great pile of maps and local history leaflets and booklets and I can’t go in without a few of them finding their way into my possession – I try not to visit often!
There’s just something about maps – obviously the old book/map smell and feel, but something more, something magical about looking at that record of human existence in a place, of how the land rises and falls and how we ride along with it. Sometimes changing the face of that land, sometimes the land reclaiming those once wild spaces back, footprints fading back to earth. It’s all there, in folded paper, in contour lines, funny symbols and dotted pathways.
I have an old cardboard box where I keep maps and other interesting ephemera. It’s a treat on a rainy afternoon to reach up to the high shelf, grab the box and pick out anything that catches my eye. I have a few favourites – the old material Ordnance Survey map of the Peak District, with the map separated and individually glued into place. A pamphlet on the M62, full of interesting titbits with which to gleefully regale your travelling companions as you whizz along at 70mph, Scammonden Dam blurring past the windows. Waterproof tracking guides to stick in a pocket when venturing for a snowy walk, following the pid-pad of footprints that are usually invisible.
I lose myself in layers of time, tracing fingers over footpaths that fade into fields, hedges that turn into housing estate boundaries. We were given an old map of our area as a housewarming gift, that had a tantalising ‘x’ in biro. Needless to say, an adventure was afoot.
We navigated only by the old map, travelling in a time-bubble of 70 years ago. Watching present-day people driving by, it really felt as if we were time travellers. We were only occasionally surprised by the odd new dual carriageway or dead end that had appeared in the intervening decades. We grumbled at these intruders, turned around, and carried on on the old roads. What would be at the ‘x’?
Eventually we arrived at an inconspicuous corner, populated with a few trees and surrounded by farmland. Would there be riches, buried just below the surface? Archaeological artefacts? Did something important happen here, many years ago? As the car doors clunked shut behind us, we stood in the silence and looked around.
We’d come entirely unprepared, and scuffed around under the trees for a while with our feet, avoiding crisp packets and pop bottles. This area was decidedly unromantic, and we felt very much back in the present day the more we scrabbled around. Suddenly, a glint caught our eyes… could this be it?
Parting the long grass, half concealed in mud, we pulled out a thick, clear glass bottle, possibly an old milk or pop bottle with ‘Laws’ on the side. What a treasure! The map spoke true to us, there was indeed buried treasure at the ‘x’! Full of joy, we headed homewards, again on the old roads, our find safely nestled in the footwell. It is now used as a candle holder, along with other old bottles – I love the look of the melted wax as it builds up over the years. It is as much a treasure now as when we found it.
I’d fully recommend navigating via old maps. I find it takes me away from the present day, back to a time without motorways, which only occasionally pop up to surprise you where you least expect it. It’s even more of a treat when navigating to a point of interest that is now decidedly built up, but still exists in the ‘real world’, as it were. It’s like finding a treasure all over again. And of course, finding an old map with an ‘x’ on it fuels anyone’s imagination, and treasure can be anything you want it to be. Put your own ‘x’s. Find your own treasure! Or, hide some beforehand and take the family.
I find having a box of maps brings immense joy. Similarly-minded people will pop round for a cup of tea and find the same delight leafing through a collection of maps. Annotated maps are even better – our Iceland map is full of campsite reviews, exciting iceberg finds and locations where the showers are free – it brings back great memories to spend a nice half hour or so reliving our road trip round Route 1. Another of my favourite maps is one I got as a present a few years ago – a map of the rude place names in the UK which always leaves me in fits of giggles every time I look at it. I have added a picture below for your viewing pleasure. I think Bell End is my fave! Although Cockstubbles is a close second.
I love this box of interesting things. Spending a few quiet moments leafing through is one of life’s joys, especially as you can then go outside and actually find yourself in the places you’ve just looked at. Planning adventures to interesting looking places and features, finding out what used to be built down the road, or just wandering from map to map following a road. Picking up a pamphlet of local history or something interesting about nature and settling down with a brew and a biscuit. A box of interesting things is a must. What would you put in yours?