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May book reviews

Insurgent; Allegiant, Veronica Roth

These are the second two books in the Divergent series. I reviewed the first one last month. I generally find sequels in dystopian worlds a little disappointing because the shininess and intrigue of discovering the new world has worn off, and that was true for these two as well. However, Roth again presents a very compelling exploration of human nature. Insurgent examines the question of whether there are good people and bad people, or whether we are all a mix. The answers to these questions have greater implications. When can you say you actually know someone? Is this necessary in order to trust them? Allegiant has an alternating narrator which is disorienting at times, and there’s lots of information and politics which makes it heavier going. Lots of people have said it was their least favourite of the series but I thought the ending was excellent. It was consistent with the characters and provided a fitting conclusion to the series, presenting the sanctifying and healing power of community. There’s nothing trite to that, as the characters wrestle with finding the bravery to participate rather than to withdraw. There is so much to like about this series!

The Tailor’s Girl, Fiona McIntosh

When ‘Jonesy’ wakes up in a military hospital after the Great War, he has no concept of his past and his name has been given to him by the medical staff. He finds himself taken in by a Jewish tailor and his daughter Edie with whom he promptly falls in love. The two make a new life together but Jonesy’s memory is still unstable and a trip to London to test his independence sees him remember his life before the war but forget Edie. Separated by happenstance, are they lost to each other forever? Playing on the well worn trope that there are many loves in the world but only one true match, this book asks when it is time to move on, and whether it is possible to build a life with another.  Fiona McIntosh accurately describes this novel in her acknowledgements as ‘outrageously romantic’, and therein lies its drama and its charm.

The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath

This feminist classic follows Esther Greenwood through some heady days in New York as a writer for a magazine, followed by a loss of direction that results in severe mental illness, all the while tracing her relationship with one-time sweetheart Buddy Willard. Esther knows others’ expectations but feels suffocated by them; her intuitions and desires simply do not fit in the world. Said to be semi-autobiographical (and Plath committed suicide shortly after its publication), it’s a story of mental illness from the perspective of the sufferer. Life in the ‘bell jar’ is where the senses are dulled and the protagonist is cut off from the outside world. She sees it but is unable to touch it, and vice versa. Plath’s genius is that she opens up this ‘bell jar’ for the reader: I felt like she drew me in to identify with Esther without forcing me into the same dark places.

The Spider King’s Daughter, Chibundo Onuzo

This story is told from two perspectives: a hawker on the streets of Lagos, and his wealthy customer Abike. The hawker remembers a life of education, nice neighborhoods and scarlet jollof rice, but following his father’s death, his family have lost their wealth. However, he retains his fine English and manners, and Abike finds that intriguing, though he refuses to talk about his family’s misfortunes. As a friendship develops between the two, the reader is privy to the different ways the hawker and Abike read the same situation. A key theme of this book is how you can trust someone in a world of corruption. This book was nominated for a stack of awards, and its portrayal of the different layers of Nigerian society through the romance between Abike and the hawker is where it gets its drama.

Growing Up Duggar: It’s all about relationships, Jill,  Jinger, Jessa and Jana Duggar

I have had something of a fascination with the Duggar family since I watched several seasons of it lying on my sister-in-law’s couch throwing up while I was pregnant with Elliot – and envying women like Michelle Duggar who are ‘a little nauseous’ for a few months! The authors are the four oldest girls of the 19 kids in the family, but you don’t really get to know them in this book; it’s a guidance book, offering what they’ve been taught to younger teenage girls. One of the distinctives of this family is that they’re not isolationist despite being ultra-conservative. These girls are all involved in community life, from the fire brigade to politics, midwifery, visiting prisons, and helping out at children’s shelters. That said, they display little capacity for independent thought. They write more or less as the mouthpiece of their parents; even illustrations are recounted from stories that Dad or Mom have told. There is some personal conviction, but it’s based on ‘research’ that is little more than scaremongering. For example, if you don’t save sex until marriage, you’ll get STDs and have “a life sentence of pain and suffering”! The chapter on culture is likewise a caricature of fundamentalist Christianity with TV, social media and ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ (even Christian versions!) viewed as “unwholesome” and to be avoided, even if they appear benign. There’s some good stuff in the earlier chapters about forgiveness and restoration in relationships, but there is a massive over-emphasis on sin, followed by repentance in pursuit of self-improvement, with next to no mention of the Holy Spirit. A very preachy book with a lot of Christian jargon, its gospel is one of ‘God saved you, now you do the rest.’

Categories: Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

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