Category Archives: Book reviews

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.

Book Review: Troll Hunting by Ginger Gorman

 

I feel as if I’ve lived under a rock. The revelations this book unfolded for me were not only eye-opening but positively scary. According to the book’s blurb, journalist Ginger Gorman was trolled in 2013. After doing a story she received hateful tweets, including a death threat, and a picture of her, her husband, and daughter appeared on a fascist website. Although terrifying, she began questioning who the trolls were and why they did what they did. So began her incredibly insightful investigation into another world, a world of cyberhate, cyber-crime and a community of faceless trolls.

Gorman talks to a realm of professionals including psychologists, academics, law enforcement agencies, victims as well as the trolls themselves. The motivation behind the troll’s activities is wide-reaching from causing mischief for fun to disturbance, disruption to individual lives or in the wider arena of political spheres. Sometimes their activities have catastrophic consequences. Gorman dips deep to get into the psyche of a troll’s mindset and one troll admitted that when he was eleven he was on the internet playing pranks for hours; “in other words: the internet was my parent.” The troll in question agrees with Gorman’s observation that for some young people, radicalisation into trolling begins at a young age.

The trolls’ backgrounds are varied. There are the women haters, terrorists, ultra-right wingers, and left-wingers, to categorise a few. But mostly they’re men often holding down ordinary jobs, and educated too. It’s naive to think that people like this haven’t been around for years and years. But the difference here is anonymity in a different dimension.

It makes you think about your own online behaviour. Like yelling in the car at the mistake someone’s made on the road, our road rage is often hidden safely behind the confines of the vehicle. Online, does anyone really know who we are? And words can hurt far more than anyone realises.

‘There’s good evidence to show dehumanising speech can lead to sticks and stones. … numerous academic studies … show dehumanisation is ‘associated with an increased willingness to perpetrate violence.’

It’s a hard read with each turn of the page revealing something more disturbing than before. Yet so compelling is it, you find yourself fascinated. I almost reached for my social media apps to delete them all. And that is a real reaction as we wonder how safe we are in the online world.

This book would have been incredibly difficult to write. The depths of Gorman’s own anguish shows through and as a reader, I was right there with her. Trolling can destroy lives and although some have gone to jail, the law enforcement agencies don’t appear to have fully caught up with this epidemic activity, and that’s scary.

I’m in awe of this author’s bravery to have not only conducted incredible research but possibly put herself and her family into danger, physically and mentally. Yes, it’s an eye-opener and if you’re on social media it would be wise to check this book out.

Book Review: Islands by Peggy Frew

I loved Islands. There’s a rhythm of sadness in this beautifully written book as we are led into the lives of various characters and their points of view told in a mix of timelines. The style may not be to everyone’s taste. But my advice is to be patient and perhaps take time to read it to remember everyone.

There was a house on a hill in the city, and it was full, of us, our family, but then it began to empty. We fell out. We made a mess.
We draped ourselves in blame and disappointment and lurched around, bumping into each other. Some of us wailed and shouted; some of us barely made a sound. None of us was listening, or paying attention. And in the middle of it all you, very quietly, were gone.

The Worth family of John and Helen and their young two daughters Junie and Anna could be like any family until Helen has an affair and leaves John. The family begins to splinter slowly in the aftermath of divorce, then completely disintegrates when fifteen-year-old Anna, a troubled and rebellious teen, goes missing. Not knowing how to deal with Anna, Helen decides to give her daughter space, after all, she has taken off before. Blame and tensions arise when Helen fails to report her missing daughter for three days. The unresolved grief about Anna overhangs their lives for years to come.

The landscape is Phillip Island and the imagery is evocative. The house where John’s parents holidayed then retired to is ever-present in the memories of each of the main characters. This imagery is spot on. I know, because I spent my own late teens in a coastal town nearby where my parents owned a holiday house.


“The bald hills crowd in and let go again, and he sails down the last stretch, the flat water below reflecting a half-moon. Past the clustered darkness of the San Remo shops and over the bridge with its tall lights, empty of their daytime perching gulls.”

There are other characters, some of whom you wonder about until the end of their chapter when the connection is revealed.

It’s a remarkable book not just because of the writing but the raw emotion is so moving it stays with you for a long time. Frew’s talent is incredible and I’ll be checking out the rest of her books.