Author Archives: S.C. Karakaltsas

About S.C. Karakaltsas

I am a published author of historical fiction and short stories.

Book Review: Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

I’d heard a lot about this book and was keen to see what the hype was about.

It opens with a dead man found lying in a marsh in 1969. A young woman, Kya Clark, always known as the ‘Marsh girl’ by the local community becomes a suspect. The story takes us back in time to 1952 when her mother struggling with a dirt poor life on a marsh with an abusive husband leaves Kya and her older siblings. One by one, the siblings also leave so that Kya is the only one left with her father. On a bender, he too disappears leaving Kya to fend for herself. She knows only one thing and that is the ways of the marsh. Its wildlife her only friend, she struggles to survive through her childhood and teenage years on her own.

Owens writes beautifully and as an acclaimed nature writer, she takes us on a journey through the marsh. We feel as if we are right in the thick of the environment and that’s the power of it.

“Maybe it was mean country, but not an inch was lean. Layers of life –squiggly sand crabs, mud-waddling crayfish, waterfowl, fish, shrimp, oysters, fatted deer, and plump geese – were piled on the land or in the water.”

Kya grows up yearning to belong, to love and be loved never losing hope that someone from her family will come back to her. Her few interactions with people make her conscious of the whispers about her nickname but she is powerless to know what to do than stay where she is. As she grows up she connects with Tate, a young man who helps her to learn to read and write and who loves the marsh as much as she does and with whom she falls in love. But like many before, he too soon leaves her. And she battles once again with abandonment and rejection.

“…the colors, the light, the species, the life; weaving a masterpiece of knowledge and beauty that filled every corner of her shack. Her world. She grew with them – the trunk of the vine – alone, but holding all the wonders together. But just as her collection grew, so did her loneliness. A pain as large as her heart lived in her chest. Nothing eased it. Not the gulls, not the splendid sunset, not the rarest of shells.”

This is a dual timeline novel where the reader’s attention is switched back and forward between the police investigation of the dead man and Kya’s life. The two stories connect when we find out that Kya knew the man and because of the community’s demands to find a scapegoat, she is targeted.

This novel tugs at the heartstrings with a rollercoaster of emotions. It touches on a number of issues including the environment, prejudice, loss, and discrimination. But it is also about beauty, love, resilience, and strength. I wasn’t disappointed.

Book Review: The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire by Chloe Hooper

Pic Courtesy of Goodreads

February 7,2009 is etched on my mind forever as it would be for most Victorians. That was the day when our state burned and many people’s lives changed forever. The tenth anniversary just passed, reminded us of the loss and the recovery. We all remember what we did that day. For me, I attended a wedding and the 47-degree Celsius heat and ferocity of the wind felt sinister as smoke blanketed our city and state. Within the next few days, we would learn that 179 people and countless animals had died, numerous property destroyed and for some, an experience too horrible to ever fully recover from.

“Soon it would be known as Black Saturday: four hundred separate fires had burned Victoria, giving off the equivalent of 80000 kilowatts of heat, or 500 atomic bombs.”

Chloe Hooper writes about one of those fires – the one near Churchill deliberately lit which killed forty people. Hooper takes us inside the police investigation and the capture of the man responsible for the fire’s beginning.

In particular, she gives us some insight into the man himself who is autistic and how he, his family and the local community deals with the consequences of his actions. The legal process is explored and at times you can’t help but feel sorry for everyone involved having to relive what happened. The man was found guilty and sentenced to eighteen years in jail.

But this story prompted me to wonder about the other fires; the ones where the Royal Commission identified electricity lines as the cause of sparks and subsequent loss of life. Surely you would think those responsible would also be in jail. Sadly, they are not. A Royal Commission, lawsuits and class actions are what’s left of accountability. And although Hooper doesn’t mention it, what hits home for me in stark contrast is this: that this one man is an easier target to punish than a corporation whose negligence is responsible for even more deaths and destruction. Yes, there was a bucket of money paid out but money doesn’t exonerate or replace lives lost.

It’s sad and it’s tragic but it has now become part of our history and Hooper has done a magnificent job to pull it all together. It’s tight and fast paced and if you didn’t know that it happened, you could almost think it was all fiction. But it’s not. Try and read it if you can.

Book Review: The Scholar by Dervla McTiernan

 

I’d heard a lot about this author and was interested to read her work.

This is the second book in the series about Detective Sergeant Cormac Reilly. His girlfriend Emma, a brilliant scientist stumbles upon a girl who has been the victim of a hit and run. It turns out the girl has been murdered and the only thing she has on her is the swipe card of another girl, Carline Darcy. Carline happens to be the granddaughter of a wealthy man who owns the largest pharmaceutical company in Ireland. The company has many tentacles including funding research and employing Emma. When a second murder occurs, the investigation takes a twist and Emma herself becomes a chief suspect.

Although this was a second in a series, it didn’t seem to matter as it stood on its own quite nicely. I enjoyed the complexities and twists in the plot. The character development was well done and I appreciated the relationships particularly within the police investigation team.

I wondered about the inclusion of Detective O’Halloran and her personal life. Her story, unless it’s set up for the next book didn’t really add much value. The other thing that jarred a little was the repetitive nature of the information. It revealed itself in several different ways and for the reader I felt it was overdone. For example, Cormac at the end explains the case to Emma and apart from a titbit of new information, there was nothing new for the reader. The interesting part for me was Emma’s reaction and perhaps that should have had more focus.

Overall, an easy to read, well written novel. Now, I’m interested to read the first one, The Ruin.

Book Review: Hollow Bones by Leah Kaminsky

An enlightening fictional story of real life German scientist, SS officer, Ernst Scafer was an eye opener. Ernst is obsessed with nature and in particular a hunter of animals and a taxidermist. He is tasked by Himmler and Goring to lead an expedition into Tibet to confirm the origins of the Aryan race. I’d never heard of the so-called World Ice Theory which is as bizarre today as it was then except for the fact that the Nazi hierarchy were consumed by it.

Kaminsky paints a picture of what life in Germany is like from 1937 to 1939. We learn about Ernst as a boy as well as his love for Herta who as a woman must go to Bride School and learn how to be a good SS wife, must be of pure origins and who challenges her husband and his involvement with the Nazi regime. Ernst, however is a man of ambition who uses the regime as a benefactor for his scientific pursuits whatever the costs.

There is a lot in this book and Kaminsky has done a remarkable job researching and piecing a story together. I found the first half of the book about the growth of Herta and Ernst relationship the most interesting and wondered if perhaps this should have been explored more. I found myself wanting more about them and Herta’s missing sister. The second half of the book is mostly about the expedition to Tibet and at times seemed almost a non-fictional account from the research. The current day chapters from the point of view of a slaughtered and stuffed animal slowed the story down for me and jarred. And if you are at all squeamish about animal slaughter it might not be for you.

It’s a very descriptive and well written book which is nevertheless gives a fascinating glimpse about this little known period but it’s not really an easy book to read. The afterword was particularly interesting as it detailed what happened to Ernst and his fellow colleagues and their culpability during the war and afterwards. It’s quite a sickening eye-opener.

Book Review: See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

It’s 4th August 1892 and Lizzie Borden discovers her father dead in the home they share in Fall River, Massachusetts. Her step mother is later discovered upstairs. Both have been brutally slain by an axe. Strangely, Lizzie and the maid, the only two at home heard nothing. This is a respectable, wealthy family and the police and neighbours speculate about who could have done it.

The story mostly covers three days; the day before the murders, the day of and the day after. Schmidt retells this true story from multiple points of view; Lizzie, her sister Emma, the maid, Bridget and a stranger, Benjamin who had been sent to have words with Mr Borden the very morning of the murders.

We quickly learn that not all is right within this family. The sisters striving for independence still remain at home and unwed. They have a tight bond with each other which borders on the obsessive. Money seems to be at the root of the unhappiness. The father is very wealthy yet the family scrimps on basics. Lizzie, although almost thirty seems to be a lost soul striving for her father’s attention and her sister’s love, almost obsessively. Yet, she suffers from a type of amnesia and can barely recollect the events of the morning of the murders. The police appear incompetent and we never really get to the bottom of it. Bridget, the maid has her own problems and is desperate to leave.

The imagery is vivid; rotting pears, decapitated pigeons, rotting mutton soup and foul smells in an upstairs bedroom will leaving you feeling nauseas. Perhaps these repetitive images are a tad overdone, but it all adds to placing us right into this fascinating and intriguing story.

The author does a great job of interpreting the facts. The weak link for me is the penultimate chapter which was from Benjamin’s’ point of view and it jarred. Benjamin comes back to see the sister’s years later and we find out about Lizzie’s arrest and acquittal although little else. Then, the very last chapter takes us to Lizzie’s point of view and back in time again. I think the book might have been better without Benjamin’s chapter.

It’s very well written and the cover is superb. The timeline of facts at the end was also very helpful. We are kept guessing right up to the end. Did Lizzie do it or not? You need to make up your own mind.

Book Review: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

This book rocked me to the core.

It’s very hard to read. I don’t mean the writing, because that’s brilliant, I mean the content. It’s brutal and tragic and if you were watching it as a movie you’d probably close your eyes in parts.

Yaa Gyasi has written a story about two half-sisters living in Ghana three hundred years ago and who never meet. Gyasi has very cleverly traced the descendants from these two women. One sister, Effia is married off to an Englishman living in relative comfort in a castle whose dungeons deep below house her half-sister, Esi and many hundreds of others who wait to be shipped as slaves to America.

The cruel legacy of slavery affects each generation as does the picture of what it means to be seen as less of a human being because your skin happens to be a different colour. And if you’re also a woman, it’s even worse. The author takes us at first into the patriarchal village where men have several wives and many children. Tribes fight for power or territory and those captured are sold into slavery set up by British colonialization.

Luckily, there is a family tree to refer to. We are given short vignettes about each descendant and travel through time and place in Africa and to America until we reach current day. It’s a very clever structure and we quickly grow to know the characters well in a very short time. The stories themselves reveal the deprivations, betrayals, secrets and suffering. Yet, interwoven is an enormous amount of love binding them together. We travel through time, the Civil War, the end of slavery but not the end of racism.

“Whatchu done wrong?” H asked, returning his gaze to the white man.
Finally, the words came out. “I killed a man.”
“Killed a man, huh? You know what they got my friend Joey over there for? He ain’t cross the street when a white woman walk by. For that they gave him nine years (in jail). For killin’ a man they give you the same. We ain’t cons like you.”

As we reach current day, it almost feels biographical and perhaps it is. The author was born in Ghana and her family went to America when she was small. The ending however for me is probably the weakest part being perhaps a little too convenient but nevertheless it doesn’t lessen the impact.

Yes, it’s a tough read. But a necessary one to educate and remind us that every human being deserves respect regardless of their sex or colour or indeed, any other difference. This book shows us what happens when it doesn’t. If you know anyone who thinks otherwise, buy this book and get them to read it so they can walk in another’s shoes and know what it feels like. Or just buy it or read it just to remind yourself.

Book Review: Any Ordinary Day by Leigh Sales

I closed the last page and had to go for a walk to clear my head and take in the colour of the day. The brilliance of blue sky contrasted with the red, yellow and green of the falling leaves helped me  contemplate what was in this book. The walk brought me into the ‘now’ of savouring my own ordinary day.

Leigh Sales explores what happens to a person when they’re blindsided by a moment they never see coming. She carefully treads through her own life as a mother, wife and award winning journalist, who you think would be resilient having had to confront other people’s tragedies on a regular basis. But journalists are only human too and she readily confesses to her own blindsided moments.

People like Walter Mikac who suffered tremendously when his wife and two young daughters were gunned down; Stuart Diver, who buried under tons of earth and rubble was unable to save his wife; Juliet Darling whose husband was brutally murdered by his son; the list goes on. Sales talks to each one about their trauma and grief and what they valued most from those around them in their road to recovery.  She talks to detectives, medical personnel, families and friends to learn from them. The discussions are honest and at times raw causing Sales to examine the role of journalists and the media and in particular her own actions in the past of pursuing a story despite the cost for the person who has suffered from a trauma.

I was very interested in the role of support and what it is that gets people through. While  Sale weaves in some scientific theory with facts and figures it’s not heavy handed. It’s matter of fact and down to earth and easy to read. At times, it’s confronting but thought provoking enough for you to learn something, if not be inspired.