Category Archives: Book reviews

Book Review: The Fragments by Toni Jordan

The FragmentsPic courtesy of Goodreads

Oh, how I adored this book!

Inga Karlson a phenomenally successful novelist in the late 1930’s died in a New York fire which also destroys all evidence of her latest and highly anticipated book. An exhibition of her life in the form of photos and fragments of burned manuscript comes to Brisbane. While strolling through the exhibition Caddie Walker, a bookseller and Inga fan, crosses paths with an elderly woman named Rachel who recites;

“And in the end, all we have are the hours and the days, the minutes and the way we bear them, the seconds spent on this earth and the number of them that truly mattered.”

Caddie is astounded when she realises the fragment of a burned page that survived ended the above sentence at ‘we bear them.’

The fact that Rachel can recite the next line leads her to believe the lost book may actually have survived or that this woman has somehow read it or knows something.  So ensues a chase through history to investigate and discover what really happened to Inga and what was so important in her last book. For Caddie the possibilities of her own book and Ph.D. about Inga are in her grasp.

This literary whodunit story is beautifully written and evocative of 1980’s Brisbane and 1930’s New York. Told in a dual time-line narrative the characters of Rachel and Caddie evolve wonderfully and then come together in a very satisfactory end. Rachel’s love story was gentle and beautifully told contrasting nicely with Caddie’s own difficult love life. But it’s not a love story, it’s a mystery portraying the ends people will go to destroy another person’s life. In Inga’s case, it was her work and her life while in Caddie’s case it was academic theft of her work by her ex-lover Professor.

The politics of academia is explored as is the politics of pre-WW2 German activity in America. It’s a fascinating examination and the novel is well-paced with unsettling tension. If you are after a page-turner, then grab this one.

Book Review: Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

 

Pic courtesy of Goodreads

This is a powerful read with a lot in it. George Washington Black is born into slavery on a sugar plantation in Barbados owned by the ruthless and cruel Englishman, Erasmus Wilde. Never knowing his parents, young Wash, as he is known, lives a life where brutality and hardship are daily struggles for survival.

By the age of eleven, another white gentleman known as Titch comes into his life. Titch is Erasmus’s younger brother and is a scientist who builds a prototype of a hot air balloon on a hill in the plantation. It’s the 1880s and his invention is sneered at by his older brother. Titch sees Wash and plucks him from the fields to be his assistant because he is the right weight for his contraption. Titch is also an abolitionist and objects to slavery and takes on Wash’s education and discovers his talent for drawing. Wash quickly assimilates into a new way of life and grows attached to Titch but he is never free of fear as Titch takes him on an adventure with dire consequences.

This is a very well researched historical fiction giving an intimate examination of slavery. But it’s more than that; it’s full of adventure, suspense, love, and history. It’s set in an era where science and invention are challenging the norms of society. The writing is wonderful from the point of view of Wash in the first person. His observations are clear.

“A man who has belonged to another learns very quickly to observe a master’s eye; what I saw in this man’s terrified me. He owned me, as he owned all those I lived among, not only our lives but also our deaths, and that pleased him very much. His name was Erasmus Wilde.”

We’re taken on a journey with Wash –  loving him, fearing for him and caring, deeply. And even though that journey at times feels impossible and almost improbable to believe, it doesn’t matter because we care so much about what happens to Wash and dare to hope for a better life for him. Along the way, we become caught up with the science of the time, from hot air balloon inventions to the world’s first aquarium, the wilderness of Canada and arctic exploration. The dynamics of Titch’s dysfunctional family are played out with Wash stuck in the middle trying to belong and find love.

Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2018, it’s a wonderful story. From violence to beauty and hope, it’s fascinating and absorbing, so much so, I couldn’t put this page-turner down.

Book Review: The Erratics by Vicki Laveau-Harvie

 

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I was keen to read this Stella Prize-Winning memoir by debut author Vicki Laveau-Harvie. The opening sentences hooked me and I knew I’d be in for a roller-coaster ride with this one.

My mother is not in the bed. My sister takes her pen, which is always to hand… and, with the air of entitlement of a medical professional, writes MMA in large letters at the bottom of the chart.
MMA.
Mad as a meat-axe.

So what’s it about? The author and her sister are called to their mother’s bedside after she’s had a hip operation. The daughters have been estranged from their parents for years and their mother has an undiagnosed mental illness, The mother exudes charm and deception and her facade unravels the longer she is kept in care. The author with her sister visits their father and is shocked by the decline of his health and fears for his life if their mother is allowed to go home. The sisters engage in tactics to save their father and keep their mother in permanent care.

It might seem harsh on the surface but as we are led deep into the dynamics of the family, their upbringing and the delusional and unpredictable behaviour by the mother our sympathy grows. Grappling with the care of elderly parents is a hot topic as the number of elderly in care increases and the burden of deciding what’s best is placed on offspring who have little or no clue other than to be guided by the health professionals who have cost and resources for care as a driving force. We also trust that our parents are capable of looking after one another but in this case, the author’s father is being systematically starved and abused by their mother.

That’s not to say it’s all doom and gloom. It’s quite humorous in parts with the sisters freeing their father from his isolation and their mother’s control. The author paints a dark atmosphere of a cold, windswept landscape that is Canada in the winter and her feelings of a home and place she once knew as a child is far removed from her life as an adult in Australia. She poses the questions we all face when dealing with an aged parent, the turmoil of decisions and the fretting for a past gone. She is also wearing the guilt of leaving her sister who lives in Canada to handle the bulk of the care.

We don’t, however, get a full understanding of what happened in their childhood and the cause of their estrangement and I would have liked to know more about the fractious relationship. But we can imagine from the little glimpses of the mother’s behaviour what it might have been like and the next paragraph sent a chill through me.

One of the few coherent messages my mother repeated to me and to my sister as we grew up, a message she sometimes delivered with deceptive gentleness and a touch of sadness that we weren’t more worthy prey, was this one, and I quote: I’ll get you and you won’t even know I’m doing it.

It’s heart-warming, wrenching and beautifully written with a lot packed into one hundred and seventy-seven pages. Give this one a go.

Book Review: Reunion by Andrea Goldsmith

This novel was first published in 2009 and I’d heard about this Melbourne author who has written several novels and decided to give her writing a go.

In Reunion, there are four main characters, Ava, Helen, Conrad, and Jack. They’re friends from university days and after more than twenty years in various parts of the world, have reunited in Melbourne and over the course of the novel, we learn about each of them and their relationship with each other.

Jack’s career has stalled but his deep unrequited love for Ava has never waned. Ava, a writer has married Harry whom the rest of her friends despise. Conrad is a successful academic who likes younger women and it’s not a surprise to learn that he has a couple of failed marriages behind him. Helen is a brilliant scientist and her research into molecular biology is being subverted for evil rather than good putting her in a difficult position.

I enjoyed the setting of my home town of Melbourne and the descriptions and could relate to the character’s university days. I found the backstory hijacked the current day too much with an information dump where the showing was minimal and the telling dominant. The characters were not terribly likable and I just couldn’t warm to them enough to care. It was a pedestrian read particularly the first three-quarters of the novel and when one of them becomes ill it stepped up a notch. However, the friendships seemed contrived and I couldn’t warm to them.

Unfortunately, this one was not for me.

Book Review: Academic Curveball by James J Cudney

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I can’t recall reading a series and I don’t tend to read a lot of mysteries so I thought I’d better remedy it.  I’d seen this book across my social media networks and have read an earlier book by this author, Watching Glass Shatter (see my earlier review https://sckarakaltsas.com/2018/08/24/book-review-watching-glass-shatter-by-james-j-cudney/)

Academic Curveball is the first of the Braxton Campus Mysteries and is set at Braxton College in Pennsylvania. Single father, Kellan Ayrwick returns home to dutifully attend his father’s retirement function. Both of his parents work at his old college, and he discovers his father is embroiled in some political issues on the eve of his retirement. After the dinner on campus, Kellan discovers a dead body and reluctantly gets involved in trying to solve the murder. Throw in his feisty and cheeky, grandmother, an ex- girlfriend and another murder along the way and things get very interesting.

It’s a very enjoyable read with great pace. The murderer was not who I expected it to be and the twists and turns kept me guessing. The end was left on a high with a cliff hanger and of course, I just have to get the next book in the series to find out what happens. I’m glad I picked this one up and look forward to getting into the next one.

Book Review: Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver

What an interesting book this is.

Meet Willa Knox, a freelance writer with adult children who had planned for a secure and comfortable future.  Instead, she finds that she and her academic husband are homeless and jobless. She inherits an old house in a place called Vineland. Her husband manages to pick up a short term job as a lecturer at a nearby University. The house is almost uninhabitable and the cost of renovations prohibitive. Added to her woes is her cantankerous, bigoted father- in- law who requires almost round the clock care. Her highly educated son, Zeke struggles under the weight of school debt and a new baby. Her high spirited daughter, Tig whom she barely understands comes home from Cuba and the house is filled with people all of whom have problems. Desperate for help to fix the house, Willa begins looking for funding from the Historical Preservation Society and finds out about the history, an earlier occupant and the utopian community set up as Vineland.

Rewind to the 1880s when Thatcher Greenwood finds himself living in the newly established Vineland with his young wife, mother- in- law and sister- in- law. He’s been appointed science teacher at the local high school and the discoveries by Darwin are causing an explosion of divisive thinking. Thatcher comes to loggerheads with the Creationist and conservative Principal.

“Thatcher thought of the riot he’d seen in the Boston square, the scarecrow Darwin hanging from the lamppost, the crowd terrified witless at the prospect of shedding comfortable beliefs and accepting new ones.”

The parallel between the two timelines is fascinating. Conservative America in 2016 where climate change is denied by the powers that be, sits side by side in Darwinist America of the 1880s.  The founder of the utopian Vineland, Captain Landis had established and controlled a community of Christian ideals. Science comes along to disrupt and beleaguer the conservatives in both timelines.

The common bond between Willa and Thatcher is that they feel left out, unsheltered and stuck in a crumbling mess. In the mix is Mary Treat the next-door neighbour who was a real-life scientist of the 1880s in her own right, add in a mix of suffragettes and murder and things really get interesting.

The characters are fascinating and well developed but I think the star of the show is Tig, the younger daughter. I loved the way Tig became the teacher and almost a saviour for her mother who sees her daughter in a very new light.  The writing is very thought-provoking. Sometimes I found the scientific discourse on plants and animals a little on the slow side, and for some, this might be a little difficult. But my advice is to take it in, think about it and enjoy. This book will keep giving long after you’ve finished it.

Book Review: The Power by Naomi Alderman

I had mixed feelings about this book. The setting seems contemporary except young fifteen-year-old girls suddenly acquire the ability to kill, maim and injure people via a skein in their collar bone which gives them the capacity to have electrical power. Girls around the world begin using it and showing older women how to harness it. Women begin saving those suffering from sex trafficking, exploitation, and abuse of all types and the power unleashes the ability for women everywhere to stand up for themselves. The world tilts as men try to grapple with the consequences.

It sounds like a tantalising read and it’s exciting to explore where the world could be if power was reversed. We see it through the eyes of a young man, two young women and a female Senator who has teenage girls. The first half of the book was fascinating as the power shifted.

If you’re expecting a utopian ending you aren’t going to get it. The world is flipped because of gender but guess what, nothing really changes. Men are scared to walk the streets, they’re violated and abused. There’s still wars and craziness. And it’s this idea that I failed to embrace and why the second half of the book seemed almost so far-fetched as to be laughable. The characters weren’t particularly likable and the plot seemed to be a series of events. For me, it seemed as if the top ten women’s issues in the world were brainstormed so the author could get each one down in the book and I began to find this tedious.

Nevertheless, it is thought-provoking to wonder what the world would be like if power changed. I’d like to think it would be better, that women would have empathy and understanding to make sure the world was a better place instead of spiralling into revenge. But Alderman thinks it would be just as bad and I think that’s a pity.