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January book reviews

I got a flood of book recommendations when I asked for some on Facebook early in the new year. I’ve read a few and here are the reviews so far!

Code Name Verity, Elizabeth Wein

The story of 2 best friends in the second world war, one a spy and the other a pilot. The first half of the book is narrated by the spy who has been captured by the Nazis, and the second half by the pilot, also in occupied France, but undercover. Code Name: Verity is a wonderful balance of intriguing plot and character development. I laughed out loud several times at the self-deprecation and mischief, and loved being drawn into the warm relationship between these two. The plot twists and turns, so you have to pay attention, but it’s young adult fiction, so still plenty accessible. I couldn’t put this one down.

The Secret Keeper, Kate Morton

When Laurel Nicholson is a teenager, she witnesses her mother stab a strange man who comes to their family home. Laurel doesn’t know him and her mother refuses to talk about the incident, but years later as her mother lies dying, Laurel takes it on herself to discover the truth of who the man was and why her mother killed him. More mystery than family drama, the narrative switches between Laurel’s present day and her mother’s youth during the Second World War. I feel like Morton does a good job of crafting the characters in particular – they’re sophisticated and subtly developed which meant I wasn’t frustrated in the slower parts. After the opening chapter, the pace is quite leisurely for the first half of the book — the kind of novel that is interesting enough to pick up each evening but not riveting enough that I was really wondering what would happen next — but the last half of it is utterly absorbing.

High Fidelity, Nick Hornby

The amusing prose makes for easy reading but this book is a little bit sad. The narrator, Rob, opens with a list of breakups that were worse than the one he is currently going through, but it quickly becomes apparent that this one is hitting harder than he admits. He’s in his thirties with no career to speak of, and his starting point in life and relationships is his own need. This is a picture of stilted and self-righteous manhood. By the end I wasn’t sure that he had actually learned to put others ahead of himself but he has at least dropped some of his pretension.

The Bloodletter’s Daughter, Linda Lafferty

This was recommended to me as historical fiction but I’d be more likely to class it as psychological thriller. Set in a Czech region of the Hapsburg Empire in the 19thC, it follows the story of the King’s mad bastard son who falls in love with the daughter of his bloodletter doctor. It is dark and tragic in places: she is simultaneously confused and fascinated by him; he is both wounded and dangerous. I found it enthralling and wanted to keep reading, but it felt a little bit like not being able to look away from a car crash.

My Family and Other Animals, Gerald Durrell

Supposedly a classic, this one took me a while to get into, and it’s the only non-fiction book in this post. Initially I thought it would have more to do with people. It’s based on a period from Durrell’s childhood where his family went to live on the Greek Islands. He’s a budding naturalist and much of the book is filled with descriptions of various animals and curious people he comes into contact with. It took me a while to warm up to this book, mainly because I had thought it would have more of a driving narrative, but once I worked out its meandering style I was able to relax into the lyrical descriptions and amusing incidents.

Journey to the Stone Country, Alex Miller

I only got 1/4 of the way through this one. Annabelle is a middle-aged woman whose husband foolishly leaves her for his much younger student, supposedly a mid-life crisis they will laugh about later. She leaves their home in Melbourne to spent some time with a friend in the place where she grew up in Queensland, and I gather some kind of romance develops. It’s a fine premise but my experience was of long descriptions of people, places, land and work that I couldn’t make sense of. I feel like if you already knew the scene, you could recognise what the author was talking about, but I didn’t feel like the picture was painted for me.

The First Man in Rome, Colleen MccCullough

A long book, historical fiction, about a period I’m not familiar with (Rome prior to Julius Caesar), this book was full of promise, but I read less than a quarter of it. Perhaps I’ll return to it later some time, since amid the political intrigue there’s some interesting people stuff going on, but I just didn’t find it that enjoyable. In the end, I think that was less about the plot and more about the pretension of the writing. Good historical fiction draws you into the world without you feeling like the author is ‘educating’ you, but in this case I felt like the author was showing off, cramming every piece of information about the time into the novel, even when it wasn’t required by the narrative. Perhaps all those details will become relevant in the latter 3/4 of the book, but if they’re necessary for the plot, the way they’re included is not artful.

Categories: Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

1 reply

  1. Glad to see I’m not the only one who struggles sometimes with excess amounts of descriptions and details. I find that not only does the story get lost in the detail and that the author comes across as slightly pretentious, but it also can hinder my imagination as I try to piece together what I ‘should’ be imagining (if that makes sense). Code Name Verity sounds awesome- now that I am reading more this year, I shall have to add it to the list :)

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