Book Review: A Few Right Thinking Men by Sulari Gentill

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 – there’s seven more in the series.

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

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Book Review: The Heat by Garry Disher

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.

Book Review: The Mandibles by Lionel Shriver

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.

Book Review: The Last Days of Ava Langdon by Mark O’Flynn

 

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.

Book Review: The North Water by Ian McGuire

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.

Book Review: Everything to Live For by Turia Pitt

 

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.

Book Review: Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

I finished Eileen a little while ago and mulled over what to say. Short listed for 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 her 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 challenging 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.