Book Review: City of Crows by Chris Womersley

Set in 1673 France, Charlotte Picot grieves the death of her husband and with her only child Nicolas, she flees her small village to save him from the plague which sweeps across the country. Along the way, Nicolas is stolen from her and she is left for dead. Rescued by an old woman who brings her back from the brink of death, Charlotte continues her quest to find her son who she fears has been taken to Paris to be sold. Along the way, she meets Lesage, recently freed from jail and together they begin a journey filled with fear, rogues and superstition.

‘Grief was an unpredictable burden for a woman; it killed or deranged some, yet made warriors of others.’

This novel is beautifully written and is the second of this author’s novels I’ve read. Like his earlier novel, Cairo, this one is hard to put down. The language is evocative and the descriptions put you into a place so full of hardship, we’re grateful to have been born in a different time. I loved the idea that ignorance and lack of education heightened Charlotte and Lesage’s superstitions of sorcery and magic for explanation of events which today, with the knowledge of science, would be easily explained. Witches, sought after for many things were revered and feared.

‘Monsieur Maigret placed the skull back on the shelf. “You know, they are hanging Justine Gallant and Monsieur Olivier at Place de Greve tonight. For murder. Witchcraft. They say they tried to summon the Devil himself.”‘

It is also a story of a woman’s grief for her family and her sheer desperation to do whatever she has to do to get her son back despite the consequences. What she does towards the end is shocking and takes your breath away and there is quite a bit of controversy over the ending. All in all an enjoyable and engaging read.

Book Review: What the Light Reveals by Mick McCoy

Military secrets, spying for the Russians, fear and discrimination for your beliefs – this is an intriguing tale about what a communist’s life was like in fifties Melbourne. Conrad and Ruby, members of the communist party with one adopted son and another on the way are treated as outcasts after Conrad is falsely accused of spying for the Russians. Watched by ASIO, unemployed and their reputation in tatters they are forced to flee Australia to live in Russia.

The story diverges into not just about life in Russia but what happens to a family with secrets who never feel they belong in their adopted country and where every movement is under scrutiny. But this book is so much more than that. The characters are well developed as we are privy to the points of view from Conrad, Ruby, Alex, (the elder and adopted son) and Peter, the biological son.

Fast forward to Russia in the early seventies and this is where the family almost implodes from secrets and lies and where their very survival is tested. Are the ideals held so closely while living in a Western country destroyed by the reality of living in a communist state?

 “In a sudden breathless cleft between sleep and wakefulness, in darkness, eyes wide, mouth open, she listened for the rumbling of the tanks, the gravel-crunch of soldiers boots, the whispered metallic click of rifles being readied to fire. Nothing. She waited for her heart to settle. Breath by breath she let go. “

They belong to neither country and the only thing they do have is each other. When tragedy strikes, we feel for each of them as they’re torn apart by distrust, anger and grief. Alex, whose path was set by his parents is bewildered and his vulnerability is touching as he comes to grips with what his future holds.

This is a wonderfully written novel inspired by the authors own aunt and uncle. He borrows a lot from them to give us an insight into two worlds. It’s not often that a reader gets to meet the author, to hear him speak of what he did over a fourteen-year time span to research, interview, and write a story. It surely is a labour of love.

Book Review: The Last of the Bonegilla Girls by Victoria Purman


Can you picture being in a camp cramped with thousands of migrants hoping for a new life after living through the worst hardship and mayhem in your own country? Bonegilla Migrant Camp near Albury, Australia was one such place which temporarily housed thousands of migrants from all walks of life from Europe and Britain. Each of these migrants came to Australia for a new start in life – for a better life.

Put four sixteen-year-old girls together from different racial backgrounds and a life-long friendship develops. There is Elizabeta from Hungary, Vasiliki from Greece, Iliana from Italy and Frances, the Australian girl whose father is the Camp director. The reader is taken through an epic journey learning about each girl and their families through their eyes. While there are many characters, which could be overwhelming, it isn’t because the author gives us enough time with each one.

The girls grapple with their own problems not just because they’re migrants, but because they’re women in a conservative 1950’s Australia. Purman shines a light on a society where teenage pregnancies and hidden love because of racial, class or religious differences aren’t tolerated and where indiscretions are kept secret because the consequences are too traumatic.

The difficulties they face are many and in particular, the story of Elizabeta and her family is gut-wrenching. The exploration of mental health issues for migrants is explored in just enough detail for the reader to appreciate the generational impact. The racism of being a “New Australian” is very real, and this book provides an understanding of what being new to a country is like, serving as a reminder for tolerance and empathy for today’s new migrants.

This was a big undertaking for the author as we’re taken into the sixties, seventies and eighties. The reunions with the girls as grown women with their own families provides a picture of what’s happened to them. The last part of the book skips years from 1994- 2018 and I yearned to know more. Does Frances finally get her happy ever after? We’re left to join the dots. But isn’t the job of the author to leave us with our imagination? Reaching the end, I was glad the story of each girl wasn’t wrapped up in a bow with a Hollywood ending because life really isn’t like that.

This is an enjoyable and well-written historical novel with tragedy, love and friendship in a harsh landscape where the only option is hard work and survival. According to the author, “One in twenty Australians have links to Bonegilla”, so you too might have a connection. Who knows?

My 2018 Reading Progress


In a post earlier this year (https://sckarakaltsas.com/2018/01/05/my-reading-list-for-2018/) , I listed 18 books I wanted to read by the end 2018. I’ve read ten from my original list so far, but somehow seem to have added many more along the way . Check out the list below of the additional books I’ve read so far.

I joined the Goodreads Challenge for the first time this year and what a difference adding a target has made to my reading. I set myself a challenge of 24 books which was conservative as I’d read 27 in 2017. I’m up to 28 now and will now doubt crash through the 30 barrier. It might seem a lot to read but I’ve been astounded that the average Goodreads Challenger has pledged to read 55 books and I’m a long way from that.

I’ve also tried to review most of the books I read although it hasn’t been possible for each one. When looking at my list so far, I was startled to see so many books by Australian authors (fourteen) but then, it’s hardly surprising as Australian authors are producing incredible work. If you don’t believe me check some out for yourself.

  1. The Sister’s Song by Louise Allan (Aus)
  2. What Was Left by Eleanor Limprecht (Aus)
  3. Castle of Dreams by Elise McCune (Aus)
  4. The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris (Aus)
  5. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Attwood
  6. The Rules of Backyard Croquet by Sunni Overend (Aus)
  7. Movemind by Robert New (Aus)
  8. The Passengers by Eleanor Limprecht (Aus)
  9. The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart by Holly Ringland (Aus)
  10. The Jade Lily by Kirsty Manning (Aus)
  11. Watching Glass Shatter by James J Cudney
  12. Resurrection Bay by Emma Viskic (Aus)
  13. The Unfortunate Pilgrim by Mario Puzo
  14. The Lion by Saroo Brierley (Aus)
  15. The Bridge by Enza Gandolfo (Aus)
  16. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
  17. First Person by Richard Flanagan (Aus)
  18. The Last of the Bonegilla Girls by Victoria Purman (Aus)

Do you have any you’d like to recommend?

Book Review: The Bridge by Enza Gandolfo


This well written book is full of emotion and heartbreak as we are confronted with the question of what happens when people face tragedy and loss. Indeed, all of us face tragedy in some form or another in a personal way or just by being bystanders as we scroll the news. A bridge collapsed in Italy a mere week or two ago, accidents happen regularly and we read and gasp and comment on the tragedy and feel sorry for those affected.

The Bridge draws on events surrounding the collapse of the Westgate Bridge in Melbourne in 1970 and although I was a child living in another state, I remember it. Living in Melbourne, I’ve travelled over it too many times to even count. I know the suburbs of Yarraville and Footscray and the streets in Melbourne which are all beautifully described to make this book even more real for me.

I hadn’t bothered to read the blurb and thought the book was entirely about the bridge collapse and was absorbed in the characters of Antonello and Paolina – their young lives changed by the collapse of the bridge when Antonello, a rigger, narrowly escapes. When the author made me take the leap to 2009 and introduced me to the new characters of teenagers Jo and Ash, I began to baulk. I wanted to know more about the bridge collapse and the lives who had been touched. I wanted more on the bridge itself. I didn’t wait long as the author skilfully intertwined the story of Jo and Ash as well as Sarah around the bridge whose impact is much more than the collapse itself.

The relationships between mothers and daughters is heartfelt and moving. Jo’s mother’s dilemma toward her child and Ash’s mother’s reactions were skilfully portrayed. Each character in the book is well drawn.

What happens to people whose actions cause the death of someone and how do they survive and move on? This question is deeply and intimately explored and there were times when tears filled my eyes grappling with the dilemma of responsibility and grief as if I was there. Some people make mistakes and get away with it and others just have bad luck. Some take responsibility and live with it their whole lives and others don’t. And the questions roll out for all tragedies and that is, ‘What if…?”

It’s not a happy story but it is a moving one and I’d recommend it.

Book Review: Watching Glass Shatter by James J. Cudney

 

What would you do if the love of your life and husband of forty years dies and leaves you a letter with a confession, so shocking, that if he were alive you’d want to kill him anyway? That’s what happened to Olivia Glass who now must decide what to do with the contents of the letter which has dramatic consequences for one of her five sons.

This is a great premise which hooked me with the blurb. The fact that one son is affected by the behaviour of the father drives the reader to want to know which one and we are well and truly put into Olivia’s shoes as she waits to discover who, and when she does, faces the dilemma of telling him.

Each of the characters are well drawn as we are led through each of their stories one by one and discover, like Olivia that they all have their own secrets. Although there are a lot of characters as each son has his own family and Olivia is supported by her sister, Diane, I didn’t feel it was too much as the author takes his time to explore each one carefully and methodically. I wasn’t hard to find myself thoroughly absorbed by this family.

I follow James Cudney’s blog (https://thisismytruthnow.com/ ) and have been interested in his writing and in particular his book reviews for a while. I wasn’t disappointed by this well written novel of family drama full of secrets and twists. Get yourself a copy.

Book Review: First Person by Richard Flanagan

Out of work and broke, want-to-be writer Kif Kehlman is offered a contract to ghost write a book about a notorious criminal, Ziggy Heidl. Interestingly, the young Richard Flanagan actually did ghost write for John Friedrich who defrauded Australian banks of more than $300m in the 1980’s. Working in banking at the time, I well remember Friedrich and what he did and so I was very interested to read this book. As a fan of Flanagan’s incredible, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, I had very high expectations.

Kif tries desperately, against a pressing timeline, to get information from Ziggy only to find that his subject is not only close mouthed but when he does say something, it is merely a multitude of lies. How is Kif expected to pull together a memoir of fifty to sixty thousand words?

As you would expect the book is very well written and the prose at times, breathtaking. However, I found it painstakingly slow. By page one hundred, the premise about Kif, his writer’s angst and his struggles with Ziggy, so repetitive it barely kept me interested.

Then things seemed to turn. Kif’s mental state slowly deteriorates as his own violence emerges from the growing struggle about his art which he uses as an excuse for not taking enough responsibility for his family and himself. His growing frustration with the lies and lack of information from Ziggy matched my own discontent as I doggedly hoped for something to happen with this character.

Unlikeable, Kif was self-absorbed and this was probably the point. Ziggy was an oddball and should have had enough charm to entice any trusting person into his web of deceit, yet somehow I didn’t feel this was as convincing as it was meant to be. The development of their relationship seemed unbelievable. Perhaps if Ziggy had been more co-operative as a character, spinning plausible and consistent lies which Kif later uncovers, the relationship toward the end may have worked better. But who am I to recast the story? Perhaps it’s not really fiction after all.

There were moments of humour, frustration and tension. Sorry Richard, I love your books, just not this one.