Reviews of Books I’ve Read

This book is extraordinary.

I know that’s a big call but let me explain why after I explain the premise.

Justine is a child, abandoned by her mother when she was a toddler and barely noticed by her irresponsible and occasional father. She is brought up by her paternal grandfather who is haunted by his experience as a POW on the Burma Railway. The two desperately need each other, finding sanctuary with the chooks on an isolated property next to the Murray River. Justine is not just abandoned by her family but by the system too and lives as an outcast in the shadow of her father’s criminal activities. As she grows into her teenage self, she encounters great difficulties which make little sense to her until she makes a decision.

From the first page to the last, the writing is exquisite. Told from the point of view of Justine, Laguna masters the language to expertly capture the essence of young innocence and bewilderment in an aggressive and incomprehensible world of males. The drawing of the characters is masterful. You want to reach into the pages and pluck Justine from her surroundings and her poverty, to reassure her that life can be better. But we can’t, and when there are glimmers of hope, they’re dashed. Her pain is our pain as we observe Justine trying to make sense of her situation and when she decides to wrestle control of her life from the incompetence of others, it’s gripping.

The story and the writing resonated long after the book’s ending and remained with me, weeks after finishing.

I think this maybe my book of the year. Yet it’s only February.

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I’d heard about this book and the author, and when I saw it the other day, I just had to buy it. And no, it’s not on my list for 2018.

It’s another crime novel for me, (remember I only started reading this genre a few months ago) set in a fictitious town in coastal Victoria, Australia. I’m really getting into some truly wonderful stories. Resurrection Bay is no exception.

Caleb Zelic is a deaf man whose insights into people’s behaviour allow him to pick up clues when on the hunt for the killer of his childhood friend. As a private security investigator he works with his partner, ex-cop Frankie who has her own demons. All they have is the text message to Caleb from his dying friend. Caleb uses lip reading and facial expressions to communicate and is a master with body language. But he fails to see what’s going on behind his back as he stumbles headlong into danger. Along the way, he learns unpleasant truths not just about the people around him but himself as well.

From the first paragraph to the last, I was gripped by the authors writing. It’s fast paced and I found I had to slow down my reading to keep up with the many minor characters in the story. I loved the main characters particularly Caleb who refuses to allow his deafness to dominate his life. This is handled extremely well and gave a lot of insight into how deaf people deal with their environment. There’s a lot to like about Caleb and his vulnerability. I found myself flinching as I almost yelled out loud telling him to watch out. Luckily, I was in the privacy of my own lounge room.

No wonder it’s won lots of awards. It’s well written and a quick and easy read. Give it a go. I’m sure you won’t be disappointed.

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Kate and Harriet are best friends who grow up on an isolated cape in the 1880’s where their fathers are the lighthouse keepers. They do everything together and as they grow into young women their lives are disrupted by the arrival of a man, McPhail. A moment in his cabin changes their lives forever.

The author, picked over the bones of a true story and imagined the lives of the girls. From the first line and last lines in the prologue, the reader is propelled head-long toward the climax.
“The sky was clear and blue forever that day.”
“I remember the way Harriet turned, breathless, laughing, a strand of her golden hair caught on her bottom lip. After that, I try not to remember.”

We are dropped into the stunning wilderness of the cape near Jervis Bay, NSW, and into the lives of the families. We are privy to everything about the girl’s friendship, their deep love for each other and the expectation of them as young women in that era. Loyalties are tested and
risks taken as we are led to the edge of the cliff and back again.

The writing is beautiful and evocative; the cover stunning. This is a wonderful Australian debut novel by Kate Mildenhall.

 

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Marija Pericic won the Vogel Prize for this stunning debut novel set in Prague in 1908. Pericic reimagines the relationship between literary giants, Max Brod and Franz Kafka.

Knowing little about either novelist, I was quickly drawn into a story full of anguish, tension and human fragility. The author veered away from the known story that Brod was asked by his friend Kafka, on his death bed to destroy all of his unpublished work. Instead, Brod publishes it making sure that posthumously, Kafka is revered and honoured into the future.

What happens though, if history is rewritten? What if Brod, a tortured man with physical disabilities is filled with self-doubt and actually loathes Kafka as his rival? What if Brod falls in love with a girl who loves Kafka? It makes for a compelling read. Does it matter that the work is fiction? It’s an interesting take on historical figures. Events are true but the rest is not.

The writing and development of characters was exquisite as we are taken into Brod’s point of view. His disability is a key theme “The tongues of those who inhabited my world were silent, but their eyes were not. Their eyes spoke, that sea of eyes through which I moved each day. They glanced and looked in secret and averted their gazes, and this looking and not-looking spoke louder than any voice of disgust, curiosity or, worst of all, pity.”

Life in Prague in the early 1900’s is rich with description and mood which changes with the deterioration of Brod’s mind. The twist at the end caught me by surprise leaving me yearning for more.

 

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I loved Martel’s Booker Prize Winner, Life of Pi and was keen to read The High Mountains of Portugal. This is not so much a novel but three separate stories spanning a century. It begins in 1904 when a young man, Tomas goes in search of an artefact which he believes will jeopardise Christianity. Using the strange mode of transport for its time, the motor car, Martel takes us on an interesting journey. Thirty-five years later a Portuguese pathologist devoted to Agatha Christie murder mysteries finds himself in his own murder mystery. Fifty years on, a grieving Canadian goes to a village in Portugal with a chimpanzee and Tomas’s initial quest is brought full circle.

Part fable and fantasy Martel takes us on an almost spiritual journey. The detail is sometimes laborious and at other times fascinating. Try to imagine getting into a vehicle for the first time when there was none around and navigating it in first gear through gawking villagers who’ve never seen a car before. I laughed when Tomas parked the car under a tree. Later he realises that he did not know how to reverse the car and instead chopped the tree down only to be faced with a stump which he could not drive over. However, the journey, at times, becomes all most as tedious as a real life one. I found myself skipping some repetitive sections to get to the point. The second story meandered. Although the third was better.

It’s not a fast paced read and it has little in plot. Yet the themes of love and loss are delicately weaved into what is sometimes absurd surrealism. Martel writes beautifully and plays with style and ideas, but I’m afraid this wasn’t quite enough for me.

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Aaron Falk, a Federal police officer returns to his hometown in country Victoria to attend the funeral of his former childhood friend Luke, who murdered his wife and son then turned the gun on himself. Behind the scenes, lies the twenty-year-old history of the death of a teenage girl which still haunts Aaron and the town. Luke’s grieving parents, plead with Aaron to investigate what they can’t accept as a murder-suicide and together with a local policeman, he unwinds more than he bargains for.

The tone of the novel is pure Australian small town and the author does a wonderful job of pulling us right into the pace never letting us go. It gets into your head as you wonder why Luke stopped his killing spree with his baby daughter, the only survivor. The heat and the drought are nothing new to Australians and is a supporting role in this story of survival as it climaxes toward the end. Anticipating what we think will happen next is thwarted by a twist.

Beautifully written, the buzzing blow flies and blast of hot air made me shudder as I read the opening pages. It’s not often that I am unable to put a book down, but with this one, I read it until I finished. I wanted to know what really happened and when you read it, you will too.

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The novel opens in a small Australian country town with a young policeman informing Chris Rogers that her younger sister, Bella Michaels may have been found after having been reported missing. He asks Chris to identify the brutally slain body which turns out to be Bella.

Unlike so many crime novels, this is told mostly from the point of view of Chris and we feel every bit of her anguish. ‘The loss of her is already too much and then there’s the other thing – the end of being loved in the way only my sister could love me. What I feel for her survives and that hurts like battery acid every minute, but worse is that what she felt for me died with her. I will never be loved like that again. ‘

Twelve years older than Bella, our hearts break as the relationship and the intense love between Chris and her only sister is revealed. We’re introduced to Nate, Chris’s truckie ex-husband and their complicated relationship.

The crime and the police investigation is secondary to how the people who are left behind deal with the trauma of loss. The writing is superbly raw and honest and delves into themes of an ever-present feeling of violence, vulnerability and fear felt by many women particularly heightened in the aftermath of a vicious crime. About men’s violence on women, the following paragraph is the most poignant of all.

And there are men who don’t cause quite so much damage and so are all too happy to publicise the worst so they can look mild in comparison, and men who do no violence and so don’t see how it is their problem that others do, and here are men who want us to know about the bad and the worse and the negligent so that we go to them for protection and there are men … who are pure and good of heart and intent and who want only to be our friends and brothers and lovers but we have no way of telling those from the others until it’s too late and that, perhaps is the most unbearable thing of all.’

On the other side, is the media’s portrayal of a slain girl who is interesting only because she is young and pretty and the relentless pursuit for an angle at all costs. And this is where we’re put into journalist, May Norman’s point of view. We read her posts just as we would the newspaper. She too must deal with the aftermath of the murder and her job of reporting, while escaping from her own loss of love. If there is any weakness at all in this novel, it would be this character whom I found difficult to warm to.

Shortlisted for the Miles Franklin and Stella prize in 2017, this is an important novel to read, well executed and exquisitely written.

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The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes is about the life of Russian composer, Dmitri Shostakovich. You may well have heard of Shostakovich and his music. Successful in Russia, he enjoyed acclaim, until at the age of 30, he wrote an opera attended by Stalin who hated it. This was a time when millions of people were murdered by Stalin and Shostakovich fully expected to be one of them after his work, previously acclaimed was denounced in 1936.
‘Lenin found music depressing.
Stalin thought he understood and appreciated music.
Khrushchev despised music.
Which is the worst for a composer?’ thought Dmitri Shostakovich.
Surviving, he spends his life as a pawn by the State to suit their own political agenda.

In three parts, the author illuminates us with details of Shostakovich’s early life, his marriages, his music, his friends and enemies; and life in the Soviet Union through several decades until his death in 1975. The reader gets a sense of Shostakovich’s insecurities, his obsessions and the constant compromise for his art in order to survive and regain a foothold into the elite when he regains popularity following Stalin’s death.

I’d never heard of the composer and have never read anything by Julian Barnes who won the Pulitzer Prize for an earlier novel called The Sense of Ending.

The novel opens with Shostakovich standing by a lift, suitcase in hand waiting to learn his fate after he is denounced. I was fascinated by the life of Shostakovich and also the Soviet Union particularly under Stalin. Unfortunately for me, that’s where the fascination stopped.

There was a lot of detail about three significant events in the composer’s life. However, it became wooden as this fictional biography disintegrated into an essay about the constraints of creativity in a totalitarian society and less about the feelings of the man and those around him. The author doesn’t make it easy as there’s a plethora of unfamiliar names and places which became confusing. Although well written, the story meandered in the second half into a general narrative. The end reads like a biography of facts told with little emotion and could have almost qualified for a Wikipedia entry. “Two years after he joined the Party, he married again: Irina Antonovna. Her father had been victim of the Cult of Personality; she herself was brought up in an orphanage for children of enemies of the state; now worked in music publishing.”

Reading this short book did compel me to read more and listen to the composer’s music, which wasn’t too my taste. Shostakovich led a difficult life and I’m grateful for the extra knowledge and glad I persisted. But my advice would be to read up on the composer before you tackle this one – it might make more sense.

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In 1964, Bert Cousins gate crashes a christening party being thrown by a colleague for his daughter, Franny Keating. Impulsively kissing his colleague’s wife, Bert’s actions set off a chain of events intertwining both the Cousin and Keating families together for the rest of their lives.
This story takes us through the trials and tribulations of blended families and how the behaviour of parents can have a long lasting effect on their children.

Growing up in the ’60’s with little parental supervision was an upbringing for many of us which, in today’s world, would probably be considered neglect. For many, there were no lasting consequences but for the blended family of six children in this novel, there is. What happens is cleverly teased across the story by the author.

As an adult, Franny meets a writer and releases her family’s story to him which is published years later. Instead of being a critical turning point, as we expect, this event blends itself into the narrative. The expected uproar never really eventuates and we are left wondering why.

Voyeuristically, we are party to the lives of each of the family members and their relationships. And the author compels us to want to know how they turn out. I thought the climax would be the coming together of the family during a funeral, but the novel twisted further into the future leaving me wanting closure on some of the siblings such as Holly and Albie.

The author delivered characters so well that I felt I knew them. I cared what happened and wanted to be part of it. It’s not perfect, it jumps point of view on occasion, some loose ends were left, but the strength of the characters and the style of the writing is hypnotic. I really enjoyed it and am sorry it’s ended.

Check it out for yourself.

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Paul Johnson, a bank officer in Manchester rebels against his father’s wishes and joins Her Britannic Majesty’s Corps of Royal Marines at the age of 19.

It’s 1960 and Paul finds himself with a motley group of recruits whose backgrounds are in stark contrast to his own. Sergeant Boswell is assigned to lead their Squad and his first introduction leaves you in no doubt that the reader is in for a no-nonsense ride.

“Now we’ve got you, the molly-coddling is over. When I say jump, you dinna ask how high; ya just put one-hundred-and-ten per-cent into it. Like it or not, you are going to be the best squad that ever passed through recruit training. If you canna make what I deem to be the acceptable grade, I will have you put back to the next squad. Hear me well. If I canna find a legitimate reason to have you back-squadded, I will beat the living shit out of you.”

The reader winces with Paul as he quickly learns the harsh realities of life when he realises his mistake right before he receives his first punishment.

“I almost laughed. Perhaps I did laugh. It was an involuntary reaction that I immediately knew was wrong, so all that escaped me was, I thought, an inaudible hiccup. Although we were already quiet, we seemed to become instantly quieter. I saw Boswell’s eyes widen. A cloud moved in front of the sun, as if to protect it. I’m sure birds stopped singing. The fearful silence seemed palpable. Only the innocent wind could be heard blowing around us.”

Paul becomes friends with ex-wrestler, Jack Mason and together they settle into the rigors of intense training to earn the coveted Green Beret with H squad, strangely nicknamed as Boswell’s Fairies. When not learning to be a marine, Paul and Jack go in search of romance, learning a lot about themselves and each other as they undergo the gruelling lessons of what it is to be a man, to love and to belong.

The writing is excellent, peppered with humour as the author takes us on a journey through England of the sixties. The language is as it should be, coarse and authentic. It made me laugh, it made me smile and it made me squirm. It’s a gripping tale of what was and now can never be in today’s world. A raw and honest portrayal of life as a marine in training. A powerfully written debut novel which takes you to another place.

Highly recommended.

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I met Sulari Gentill at the Emerging Writers Festival held in Melbourne in 2014 when I first commenced my own writing journey. She was on a panel and I was in awe of the amount of work she’d completed in a very short time – five books in five years. I am sorry to say it’s taken this long to read her first book in the Rowland Sinclair series and I’m certainly not disappointed.

Rowland Sinclair is a wealthy young man from a prominent family whose lifestyle as an artist, is at odds with the rest of his family. Unwittingly he becomes embroiled in the political tensions of the early 1930’s when the fear of communism fuelled right wing ideas of revolution. When Rowland’s uncle is murdered, Rowland or Rowly as he is affectionately known, throws himself headlong into danger to find the culprit.

The book starts off slowly as the setting and characters establish themselves. Then, the action and tension begin. Sulari does a great job to transport the reader to a very different time and place. I was fascinated to learn about this tumultuous period of Australia’s history and excerpts from newspapers of the time at the beginning of each chapter is a clever way to provide the reader with extra information. It’s a well written first novel and I’m keen to read more from this author.

My second crime novel by an Australian in a month and I’m beginning to like this genre

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Wyatt is a smart thief with scruples who’s been around long enough to be cautious and wily. Turning down a job in Melbourne with the haphazard Pepper brothers, he instead, accepts a job in Noosa to steal a painting. He’s meticulous in his planning, holding off the charms of the local real estate agent who freelances as a crook herself. But the plan dramatically unravels as Wyatt, using his wits fights to survive.

I don’t often read crime novels and this one was told from the criminal’s point of view. This is the first book I’ve read by Australian Garry Disher. I’d not heard of him until this book was recommended to me by a friend. Although, this is the eighth in a series, it appeared not to matter that I’d not read any of the earlier novels.

The start was slow as the story and characters were set up. Then the action started and I could barely put the book down. I enjoyed the description of places I know well.  I didn’t  really warm to any of the characters – well, they are crooks after all. The fast pace of violence and suspense hooked me as I tried to figure out the double cross. Oddly, I found myself on Wyatt’s side hoping he’d get away with the crime and survive.

Overall, I enjoyed the writing style. The Heat is an enjoyable holiday read, perfect to lose take you away from your everyday.  I think I may now be hooked on crime novels especially by Garry Disher.

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Having read Shriver’s incredible book, “We Need to Talk about Kevin,” I was very excited to read her latest. Set in 2029, this is a story about a family whose large inheritance is wiped out when America’s economy spirals into a financial abyss. The story follows the lives of the Mandible family and how they cope with hardship along with millions of others over the next twenty years.

The daily lives of the citizens are reminiscent of a country at war – spirally prices for scarce food, lack of water and no jobs – yet the country is not at war. This might be set in the future but I can think of a number of countries where this is happening in the present day.

The authors imaginary world includes accounting chips embedded into the necks of citizens to track their income and expenditure so as to ease the Government’s collection of a 70% tax rate; robots; flexscreens which are paper thin devices of communications. There’s a wall between America and Mexico which is designed to keep the subservient Americans out of affluent Mexico.

Most of the dialogue is dominated by the family’s obsession about the economics of their country’s plight. It is so heavy handed it becomes a bore of information dumping revealing little about the characters other than their sameness. This is what lost it for me. When the story actually gets going (after about page 200), I became more engaged. The family’s difficulties and their survival is interesting. But the lack of depth of the characters left me with little empathy for any of them. After 400 pages I knew little more about them and more importantly, cared less about them than I should have. Was I enlightened with all the economic speak? Not at all. An interesting premise could have given so much if the author had concentrated more on her characters.

I was disappointed as I expected more than was delivered. But then maybe, reading about the financial ales of a country like America is not a futuristic surprise just a daily reality for much of the world.

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The Last Days of Ava Langdon by Mark O’Flynn was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award 2017. A tantalising story about the last day in the life of the eccentric and elderly writer, Ava Langdon. Set against the backdrop of the beautiful Blue Mountains, the author has very skilfully drawn an exquisite character, inspired loosely on the real life writer, Eve Langley. She dresses in men’s clothing, drinks from a sherry bottle in the park and apart from her machete which she carries with her, obsesses over her writing.

There is hardly a plot, as the author, almost poetically takes us through a day with Ava meandering around the township of Katoomba. We are inside her head as she imagines the stories of the locals who are wary and barely tolerant of a person they little understand. A recluse, we are given a tour of her derelict hut yet happy in her surroundings, she asks for no pity. There are hints of how she has arrived at such a place, alone and destitute. Our idea of how an elderly woman should behave is challenged as we’re taken with her to the café, the library, soup kitchen, the Post Office, the pub, and hospital.

A surprise visitor brings us a glimpse of her past and as the book ended, I was left wanting more of her sad back story. Not a long book,  I enjoyed reading it, and the language was evocative and superbly crafted, but it might not be to everyone’s taste.

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North Water is another book shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2016. Set in 1857, the story is about a whaling expedition which goes horribly wrong. There is conflict between two main characters, Drax, a disgusting and violent man and Sumner, a doctor.

The opening line “Behold the man” sparked my interest. The next paragraph led me down a path of the grotesque. The ensuing pages unfolded such violence, savagery and cruelty that I was tempted not to read on.
Drax and Sumner have dubious and contrasted pasts but we only learn about Sumner. I wondered what must have happened, for a man to become like Drax, who in the end, like the rest of the characters, I cared nothing for.

This book without formal warning is not for the faint hearted. I wondered if it was necessary to describe the killing of baby seals in such horrific detail. For me, this sort of violence was unnecessarily graphic and added little to the plot. Toning down the violence would have enhanced the book. The reader gets that it’s a tough life and harsh conditions without it being rammed constantly down our throats. The only thing that compelled me forward was the fact that there was another purpose for the expedition which becomes clear half-way through. Getting past this point, the story becomes one of survival which gripped me until the end. I wanted good to overcome evil and was rewarded for my patience, but what a journey I had to take to get there. Well written with evocative language, the fact that I shivered with the men in the freezing conditions, is a testament to where the author wanted me to be.

Read it if you dare.

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Turia Pitt at 23, with a loving partner, great job and everything to look forward to, entered an ultramarathon in 2011 and was caught in a bushfire which changed her life forever. With burns to 65% of her body, her survival was miraculous as was her battle to adapt and fight.

I’d read a bit about Turia over the years from the media. What happened to her and other competitors was tragically avoidable. Her gut wrenching story unfolds bit by bit with the help of writer, Libby Harkness. The details of what happened and why, are clearly explained. I found myself caught up in the emotion, particularly when I read about her bravery and the steadfast courage and love from her partner, family and friends.

No parent wants what happened to Turia for their child and her mother’s dedication and belief in her daughter is incredibly moving. I challenge you to read it and not be affected. It truly is a story of inspiration not just of Turia but everyone around her who never gave up.

For anyone who is going through a hard time and thinks they can’t do something,  read this book and I hope you’ll soon see that with the right mindset, you probably can.

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I finished Eileen a little while ago and mulled over what to say. Short listed of the Man Booker Prize 2016, it’s a story about a girl trapped in a dreary life, caring for her alcoholic father at night and  working as a secretary in a dead end job in a boys’ prison, during the day. She dreams of breaking free and after meeting the beautiful and smart, Rebecca,  is pulled unwittingly into a crime with unexpected consequences.

Eileen is not a girl you can like nor is she a girl with too many redeeming qualities. But she is a girl, who at certain times in our own lives, reflects a tiny teeny bit of ourselves. She has the maturity of a child in the body of a woman, full of uncertainty, yet so seemingly self-aware of every one of her flaws, and there are many. The story drags at times and much of her thoughts and inadequacies become repetitive, so much so, that even if I wanted to like her, her character allows no-one to feel pity.

I admire the author’s ability to get deep inside the head of this character. Except for the contrasting Rebecca,  grotesque glimpses of other characters are a mere sideshow to Eileen and an obsession with self. We’re left wondering about Rebecca and whether Eileen in her final act was ever truly empathetic for anyone else. I think not.

Overall, a difficult read but I’m glad I persevered. Did I like it? I can’t say I did, but then everything we read shouldn’t be about entertainment. It took me out of my middle class comfort zone that’s for sure. Well done to the author.

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