Category Archives: Book reviews

Book Review: The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in the Business of Death, Decay and Disaster by Sarah Krasnostein

 

 

Last year I sat next to a bookseller on a plane from Sydney to Melbourne. Naturally, we chatted about books and when I asked her for her top recommendation, she gave me The Trauma Cleaner.

Like many others I thought this was a book about cleaning up the gruesome consequences of someone else’s mess. But this book is so much more. It’s an almost voyeuristic examination and insight into a number of people whose houses are so bad that specialist industrial cleaners are needed.

It almost seems fictionalised, surely no-one can live like that. Yet, as fantastical as it might seem, the author is clear about one thing. Nothing is exaggerated. And she should know as she went on the road to see for herself.

“As the heartwood of a tree sings to you of thousands of sunlit days and rainy hours – specific symphonies of soil and the seasons of weathering and revival that will grant you the structural strength to reach for your share of the light – the rotten core of Dorothy’s house is a whispered scream that hurtles you backwards through decades of pitch darkness.”

And so starts the chapter about Dorothy who has lived in squalor for most of her life.

We learn in detail about the owner of one such business, Sandra, the woman who was born a male and the trauma of her life and how she’s coped. Sandra has the ability to put those whose lives have been affected by trauma at ease and because of her perfectionistic tendencies is serious about leaving her clients better than she found them.

Throughout these stories about Sandra’s clients, the author skilfully opens the door on Sandra’s own life as an adopted child who was different but never accepted by her family; of her struggle for identity and love and acceptance as a transgender woman who stood up to the establishment and lived her life her own way.

This is an astonishing memoir, beautifully written. In parts we are shocked by what human beings are capable of, good and bad and the effect on others. Sandra could have made very different choices but her fight and zest for life outweighed all the other demons she carried.
This is a very different book and if it makes you uncomfortable then I think that must be a good thing. This one will stay with me for a long time.

Pic from Goodreads

Book Review: The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Kate Morton

Like Kate Morton’s earlier novel, The Lakehouse, the star of this show is actually another old house. Everyone else are bit players in a complicated history spanning more than a century. As you can imagine, it’s not a short read, nor is it particularly easy to read for a half an hour a night as many readers might want to do. No, this requires you to concentrate and remember each timeline, each character, their backstory and how they fit into the tangled web which the author has cleverly created.

Edward Radcliffe is a wealthy artist who, with a group of other artists and models spend the summer of 1862 at Birchwood Manor. A woman is shot and another is missing and what happens there leaves scars and mystery about for generations to come. Fast forward one hundred and fifty years later and Elodie Winslow finds a sketch pad and a satchel which as an archivist peaks her yearning to know more, especially because for some reason she senses a connection.

There is a labyrinth of information and description which at times frustrated me as it slowed the story down a bit too much for me. There was so much detail, yet when it really counted towards the end there was very little.

This novel is almost like a collection of short stories weaving a thread throughout. Of course it all comes together as you would expect although the story with Elodie had too many coincidences for my liking. I wondered if telling the story from Lucy’s and Lily’s point of view might have been more impactful as well as shorter. I might be controversial but I’ll  throw it out there anyway – I didn’t really see the point to the character of Leonard and his story seemed more of a  filler to me.

Don’t get me wrong, this novel is a beautiful and evocatively written novel.

‘Edward’s portrait of Fanny, the one which she wears the green velvet dress and a heart-shaped emerald on her pale décolletage, was brought in by the Association when they started opening for tourists. It hangs on the wall of the first-floor bedroom, facing the window that overlooks the orchard and the laneway that runs towards the churchyard in the village.’

With a good edit, the story would have moved on a bit faster which is what I was after. But if you love a languorous read to take it all in slowly then you will probably really love it. For me it was enjoyable enough but not the brilliant I was expecting or hoping for.

Reading Rap Up of Results for 2018

 

I’ve previously written a couple of posts about the reading challenge I set for 2018. (https://sckarakaltsas.com/2018/09/14/my-2018-reading-progress/)

My goal was 24 books for 2018 and managed to read 36 so I’m pretty happy about that. What made the difference for me? It was the ability to track my books by using Goodreads which is a great place for readers (and authors too). I love to be able to look back at the list. Since joining Goodreads more than five years ago I’ve been astounded at what I have read.  It might sound a lot to some but compared to others, the amount is a mere morsel. I’ve seen others who read over one hundred. Perhaps I’m a slow reader. Maybe I’ve been busy writing. That’s right, I did just publish my third book, A Perfect Stone.

So for a summary of 2018 I list some stats below.

Books: 36 (27 for 2017)

Pages: 11999 (8901 for 2017)

Books by Women: 21 (17 by Australian women)

Books by Men: 15 (8 by Australian men)

Book of the Year: A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

Other books which were strong contenders for Book of the Year were: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman and Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton

Now to sort out my challenge for 2019. Any suggestions?

 

Book Review: Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty

Courtesy of Goodreads

I’ve always wanted to read one of Liane Moriarty’s books but never have. I feel as though she’s an author who’s been read by everyone and it’s taken me this long to take the plunge. So instead of starting from her first, I’ve started with her latest, Nine Perfect Strangers.

The title more or less gives it away – it’s about nine individuals who have come together in a health retreat hoping to get well. They get much more than they bargained for – a true transformation which will change their lives forever.

I’ve actually never been to a health retreat. The descriptions of the health spa were intoxicating and I almost felt like I was there luxuriating in the massages, gentle walks, Tai Chai and delicious food and I was just about ready to book myself into one. Half way through the story though things got interesting as the challenges each of the nine faced was ramped up a notch or two.

The characters, and there are at least eleven, are largely white and middle class and I didn’t find them particularly likeable. I could forgive that I didn’t feel too much for the characters – just like when you go to a party or a conference, you get to know people but don’t have to actually like them – that is kind of what I felt about them all. The switch between their point of view meant that we stayed with them just enough. There was however, a bit too much repetition about their backstories which I found a little tedious. For example, we’re told on numerous occasions that Carmel has four children and thinks she’s fat even though she isn’t. I didn’t find her particularly engaging as a character and the change in her came a little too late for me. Like Carmel, none of them really developed the way I’d hoped. Frances was the one character who we grew to know a bit more than the others and although a bit wacky, I didn’t warm much to her either.

When the owner of the resort, Masha goes rogue, I unconsciously rolled my eyes. Masha, a supposedly strong, determined yet narcissistic woman has demons which begin to play out in weird ways. The story twists into an almost unbelievable farce which I found a little hard to swallow. There’s quite a bit of commentary about body image and the author does tackle mental health issues particularly suicide which all seemed at odds to the bizarre turn of events. Perhaps this story didn’t go far enough. I won’t give away spoilers but it takes an almost comic and predictable turn nicely tied up neatly at the end, which funnily enough, was exactly what I wanted.

This is an easy and quick read and although not a literary masterpiece would be an ideal, very light, holiday read. Have I booked a health retreat yet? Nah, somehow I don’t think it’s me. Would I try another book from this author? Yep, probably just to compare it this one.

Book Review: The Carpet Weaver of Usak by Kathryn Gauci

 

Set in a village called Stavrodomi not far from the town of Usak, Anatolia, a Greek couple, Christophorous and his young bride, Aspasia live an idyllic life, side by side with their Turkish neighbours who call their half of the village, Pinarbasi. Christophorous works for the Anatolian Carpet Manufacturers Ltd as a carpet manager and Aspasia is a carpet weaver who weaves the most sought after pieces with her long time Turkish friend, Saniye. The demand for quality carpets is high and life is good in early 1914.

But their bliss is shattered with the onset of World War 1 when the men of the village are forced to fight in horrific conditions for a cause they don’t understand. Not long after the end of the war, another conflict starts up when Greece invades in 1919. The two nationalities are pitted against each other and as the war progresses the Greek population are sent back to Greece despite the fact that they and their ancestors had lived there for generations. The two wars are particularly pivotal in shaping modern day Turkey and Greece, despite some testing years since.

It’s a fascinating time and is a particularly enlightening read. The description of the carpet weaving is a lesson in how it was done and reminded me of my visit to Turkey a few years ago when I witnessed first-hand, the intricacies of weaving. Indeed, weaving and spinning was one of the few skilled occupations dominated by women giving their families a solid and reliable income. It’s not surprising that the detail is so fascinating as the author herself worked in Greece for a number of years as a carpet designer.

Throughout the story, the reader is immersed in the daily lives of the three main characters, particularly the women and we learn how they live – their fears, their loves and their superstitions. Indeed, the description of  food so very central in their lives, was mouth-watering – lamb koftes, stuffed aubergines, goats cheese and black olives ‘… she threaded pieces of meat that had been marinating in olive oil, lemon and herbs onto skewers and place them over the coals.’

The atrocities of war and its toll on Christophorous and Aspasia is heartbreaking but out of war comes hope and strength as ordinary people who care for each other stand up in support of what they know is right. It’s a beautiful story of love and adversity and the power and sacrifice for friendship.

The Carpet Weaver of Usak is the third book where Kathryn Gauci writes about Greece and Turkey. For more check out her webpage

Copy was provided courtesy of the author with thanks.

 

Book Review: Our Souls At Night by Kent Haruf

Our Souls At Night is a very sweet and tender read about two lonely people in their seventies. The story is set in a small town in America where everyone knows everyone and where there’s not much that’s missed. Addie Moore and Louis Waters are neighbours and have known each other for years. One evening, Addie decides to do something about her loneliness by inviting Louis to stay with her each night.

This is a gentle and touching read full of hope and anticipation. We are given a voyeuristic view into their growing relationship and the challenges they face. It’s much like watching a budding flower blossom, you hold you breath at the beauty of it knowing that it can’t last.

The tragedy of it all is that the author wrote it for his wife Cathy as he was dying and didn’t live long enough to see it published.

A movie of the same name starring Jane Fonda and Robert Redford is equally as good although there are some slight changes in story.

An uplifting and beautiful read of only 179 pages where every sentence is carefully considered.

‘The next day he worked in the yard in the morning and mowed the lawn and ate lunch and took a short nap and then went down to the bakery and drank coffee with a group of men he met with every other week. One of them a man he didn’t particularly like. The man said, I wish I had your energy.”

Just because you get to a certain age doesn’t mean you can’t find love and happiness. This book will make you think about older age differently.

Book Review: Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton

This is an amazing book and is a must read. If you haven’t heard about it, I predict you will because I’m fairly confident this will be winning prizes in 2019. There I’ve said it, but why?

The book is written from the point of view of a thirteen-year-old boy, Eli growing up in Brisbane whose best friend Slim is his babysitter who just happens to be a notorious ex-crim, his stepfather is a drug dealer, his mother ends up in jail and his older brother, August is mute. If that doesn’t get you going, then throw in the boy’s philosophical yearning to know if a man can ever be good as he takes a long hard look at the role models of adult men around him.

The writing is sublime.

Still night air and two boys smoking on a gutter. Stars up there. A cane toad down here has been flattened by a car tyre on the bitumen road a metre from my right foot. Its pink tongue has exploded from its mouth so it looks like the toad was flattened halfway through eating a raspberry lolly snake.

‘Sucks, doesn’t it?’ Darren says.
‘What?’
‘Growing up thinking you were with the good guys, when all along you were running with the bad guys.’

The cover is incredible.

I’ll almost bet that you’ll turn back if you walk past a bookshop with this cover in the window, just to take a look.

The splat of pink and orange with a small bird sitting on a statement, ‘your end is a dead blue wren’ is intriguing. That statement will mean a lot and by the time you finish the book you will understand why.

The descriptions are exquisite.

Slim coughs, chokes up brown tobacco spit that he missiles out the driver’s window to our sun-baked and potholed bitumen street running past fourteen low-set sprawling fibro houses, ours and everybody else’s in shades of cream, aquamarine and sky blue. Sandakan Street, Darra, my little suburb of Polish and Vietnamese refugees and the Bad Old Days refugees like Mum and August and me, exiled here for the past eight years, hiding out from the rest of the world, marooned survivors of the great ship hauling Australia’s lower- class shitheap, separated from America and Europe and Jane Seymour by oceans and darn pretty Great Barrier Reef and another 7000 kilometres of Queensland coastline and then an overpass taking cars to Brisbane city, and separated a bit more still by the nearby Queensland Cement and Lime Company factory that blows cement powder across Darra on windy days and covers our rambling home’s sky-blue fibro walls with dust…

The plot and characters are well-developed.

From the first page you’ll be put into the rollercoaster’s front seat which barely lets up until close to the end when you’ll wonder why you have palpitations in your chest. At times, you’re unsure whether you should laugh or cry or merely gasp at the almost farcical nature of the boy’s life, where you wonder if he can survive another distressing obstacle. Eli makes us see a different side to people we’d automatically dismiss.

“I love Slim because he truly loves August and me… I love him so much for convincing us that when Mum and Lyle are out for so long like they are at the movies and not, in fact, dealing heroin purchased from Vietnamese restaurateurs.

You just can’t help but fall in love with Eli and his brother, August. You’ll despise their arch enemies and hope like hell that there can be a better life for them both.

It is a wondrous book full of heart and soul. Get a copy, anyway you can.