Category Archives: Book reviews

Book Review: The Corset by Laura Purcell

 

This is a difficult book to review without giving away spoilers. But boy, it’s a book which stays with you for some time.

Dorothea, a young, wealthy woman studies the science of phrenology when visiting women in jail. She meets sixteen-year-old Ruth, who is facing the death penalty for murder. Dorothea wants to test the theory that the shape of a skull reflects a person’s propensity for crime and redemption. After getting to know Ruth, she considers another idea, which is that it may be possible to kill with a needle and thread by supernatural means.

Set in Victorian, England this is a fascinating read as we enter the points of view of both women. Ruth tells Dorothea her story; her childhood, dictated by poverty and horrific circumstances meant she had little choice than to become a seamstress for a madwoman. When she loses the people she loves, she takes on the blame. Sewing herself into a corset, Ruth believes it will offer protection against the needle’s evil power to do bad things to the people she sews for.

Dorothea’s ideas are challenged by Ruth’s frankness and she struggles to believe her story. She identifies with Ruth – their mothers both died when they were young. Their fathers are weak. Dorothea, secretly in love with policeman, David, is an unmarried twenty-five-year woman turned Catholic. Her father is desperate to get her off his hands by marrying her off to anyone eligible he finds and Thomas is perfect. She has other ideas and when her father announces that he is to remarry, she takes matters into her own hands with disastrous consequences.

The themes of poverty and wealth in society are explored particularly for women whose wealth is dependent on men. It was fascinating to learn about debtor’s prisons where prisoners were unable to earn money to pay their debts and so were doomed as soon as they entered.

As a reader, we’re swept up with the idea of superstition and the ‘magic’ of the needle and thread. Purcell weaves an intricate and clever plot with unexpected twists and turns. I wondered about the two men in Dorothea’s life – David and Thomas – who seemed to fade away and I would have liked to know what happened to them. However, this may be deliberate as we are left wondering about Dorothea and what she has become, long after the last page. The ending is masterful and reading each word carefully is a must. It’s a pity I can’t reveal more.

It’s a definite page-turner, although grisly and gruesome in parts. Beware! Just check it out for yourself.

Book Review: The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

 

Romy Hall is a young woman serving two consecutive life sentences at Stanford Women’s Correctional Facility in California. Outside, in the free world is her mother and her seven-year-old son. Inside, is a world where she has no rights, where hustling to survive is the norm and boredom is rife. Her upbringing by her single mother was less than ideal and she does what she can to escape the cycle of poverty which was pre-ordained from her childhood. Working in various jobs, dabbling in drugs, she ends up as a dancer in a strip club where a man stalks her and that’s where the trouble begins.

The Mars Room, short listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2018 is the name of the strip club where Romy worked. We are in her head, observing and feeling the desperation and despair of prison life. Detail slowly unfolds until we find out the reason for her incarceration.

The legal system is frustrating and her overworked legal counsel is barely adept because she can’t afford anything better. Her side of why she did what she did wasn’t permissible and the injustice of it all permeates.

Her lawyer explains, “Even in these unbelievable cases, where the lawyer is totally out to lunch, they (the judiciary) still side with him. One guy fell asleep during cross-examination of his client. Another was a felon himself, handing a murder case as community service, but had no experience as a trial lawyer. Think those guys were ‘ineffective’? Not according to the Supreme Court. You got a very tough deal. There’s no question, and I feel for you.”

The author takes us on a bleak ride into the gritty and raw lifestyle of people who are down and out, abused and drug addicted, and into an institutionalised system where prisoners are barely treated with any human dignity. The characters are well drawn and Kushner does a remarkable job to show not just their flaws but their vulnerability and humanity particularly fellow women prisoners. Kushner gives us brief interludes into other points of view, mostly men; Doc the corrupt detective, Hauser, the teacher and even the stalker.

I’m in two minds about this book. On one hand it’s a fascinating look at life through the eyes of a prisoner. On the other hand, it was disjointed as the chapters flipped in and out of Romy’s point of view and I found this to be a bit laboured. I think I would have preferred to see the world only through Romy’s eyes which was quite rich enough. It’s very well written and the  ending was incredible stayed in my head long afterwards. It’s definitely a book worth checking out.

Book Review: Beartown by Fredrik Backman

I loved Backman’s book, A Man Called Ove and was keen to read another of his and found  Beartown to be very different.

It’s about a small town nestled in a forest somewhere in Sweden. The community is depressed and the only thing that brings the town together is ice-hockey. Hopes and dreams are pinned on the junior hockey team and in particular its seventeen-year-old star, Kevin. The burden of hope rests with the team and their General Manager, when the team has the chance to win the national championship. An act of violence by a boy to a young girl tears the town and the team apart. Is she telling the truth or is it a conspiracy to prevent the team from winning?

Let me say at the outset that this is a long book with many characters. We are introduced to many of them and are witness to each of their hopes, dreams, weaknesses and strengths. The town itself is set in a snow covered wilderness and even though it’s summer here, I shivered and not always from the images of ice and snow.

I’m not much for following sport although living in a football loving city, I regularly witness the fanaticism, zealotry and love for a team of men who often have no other talent than play sport. And this is what this book shows us. But it also shows us that sports players are not God, they are mere humans who get things wrong and sometimes do the wrong thing.

This story also shows us what happens when money and sport mix and when it can be a lethal combination blinding everyone to accept a toxic culture for the greater good of winning. It also tells us about community;  of the rich and powerful who don’t hesitate to use their power for what they want regardless of who they may hurt; about the brave and the cowards and the honest and the cheats.

There are many facets to this book and it comes with a warning. It takes a long time to get there. The first three-quarters gives us a multitude of characters in the town and in the team. There is a lot explained about the sport of hockey, as there should be. But for me it got a bit too much and I almost gave up on several occasions, and at times, I admit it, I did skip some bits (sigh).

But if you persist, you’ll be rewarded with a story about right and wrong which will stay with you for a long time after.

 

Pic from Goodreads

Book Review: Orphan Train by Christina Baker-Kline

 

For more than eighty years and until 1929, in excess of two hundred thousand homeless children were put onto trains and sent out to the mid-west of America. The trains stopped at towns where adults were encouraged to ‘adopt’ and give a home and education to an orphan child. More often than not the children were used and abused and many were seen as little more than indentured servants. This is a little known part of American history and reminds us again how children are not always treated the way they should be. Sadly, history like this seems to continually repeat itself.

Orphan Train is about a ninety-one-year-old woman, Viv who befriends a seventeen-year-old girl, Molly, who herself has lived a life in foster care. She has been shunted around many foster families many of whom are well intentioned but can’t provide the stability and sense of love and belonging that Molly needs.

Viv tells Molly her story and the reader is taken back in time to the 1920’s when Viv was an orphan child. She had migrated with her parents and three siblings from Ireland to New York where the hardship described reminded me of Frank McCourt’s account of life as a migrant in Angela’s Ashes. A fire sweeps through the building and Viv (or Niamh as she was known by her birth family) is the only survivor. She is taken in by the Children’s Aid Society and placed on the train for eventual adoption.

The stories of both Viv and Molly are heartbreaking and moving. Molly, a Native Indian never feels she belongs and Viv is the same and this is where they truly understand one another.  Viv, as a child trying to cope with her changed circumstances was particularly sad.

I wasn’t convinced about Viv’s life as an adult and this part fell a little short for me in some of its predictability. Molly’s back story around her heritage never really had the chance to be fully explored.

Nonetheless, it’s a wonderful story, beautifully written and researched.

 

Pic is courtesy of Goodreads

Book Review: Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak

I held this tome of a book in my hands with trepidation at first, just because it’s a long read. Now I’ve finished it, I hold it like it’s a bible of words to be revered.

I simply loved this book.

Within the first few pages we’re introduced to the narrator, Matthew Dunbar, who, the day after getting married, is digging in someone’s backyard he doesn’t know for a typewriter he’s never seen before.

If before the beginning … was a typewriter, a dog and a snake, the beginning itself – eleven years previously – was a murderer, a mule and Clay.

And from that point we are engulfed in the story of the five Dunbar boys whose mother, Penny has died and their father has fled. The oldest is Matthew and the fourth boy is Clay who builds a bridge.

The moving family saga swaps between the present, the past and the time before and while this may be confusing at first, this is a book that commands your undivided attention and almost your every waking moment. There’s a rhythm and heartbeat to the writing, much like the metronome used by the Penny when teaching kids to read. The writing is pared back and at times almost poetic. The words are there for a reason and boy, does Markus Zusak know how to put them together.

For the longest time then, ten minutes at least, he stood at the mouth of Archer street, relieved to have finally made it, terrified to be there. The street didn’t seem to care; its breeze was close but casual, its smoky scent was untouchable. Cars stubbed out rather than parked, and the powerlines drooped from the weight of mute, hot and bothered pigeons. Around it, a city climbed and called:
Welcome back, murderer.

Each boy has his place in the family but Clay is the one they all look up to and need. The bonds of brotherhood can never be broken and their survival and hurt belongs to them all.
I loved the animals; the mule, Achilles, is a star in his own right.

This grey, patchy, ginger, light brown, thatch-faced, wide-eyed, fat nostrilled casual bastard of a mule – was standing steadfast, on the cracked lino.

And who could forget fur-shedding Hector the cat, Agamemnon, the head-butting fish and Telemachus the pigeon?

We grow to love Penny, and understand her background and the power of motherhood on her tribe of boys. Her passing is truly heartbreaking.

The reader is privy to the rough and tumble of what young boys are like, beating each other up all in preparation for what lies ahead.

They reached the sixth floor and Clay dumped Tommy sideways and tackled the mouth on his right. They landed on musty tiles, Clay half smiled, the other two laughed, and they all shrugged off the sweat. In the struggle, Clay got Henry in a headlock. He picked him up and ran him round.
‘You really need a shower, mate.’ Typical Henry … To interrupt, Tommy, thoroughly thirteen, took a running jump and brought all three of them down, arms and legs, boys and floor.

And like an onion we peel off the layers and the story reveals itself bit by bit so that by the end we know everything that’s happened and why.

I enjoyed spending time with the Dunbar boys. I worried for them, shed a tear for them, laughed with them, and didn’t want to leave them when I closed the final page. They will stay with me for a very long time.

Dive in, take your time, immerse yourself and enjoy this one.

 

 

 

Book Review: The Stars in the Night by Clare Rhoden

 

Last year, I discovered letters, photos and other paraphernalia which belonged to my grandparents. There were letters from my grandfather when he fought in WW1. He spent time in Egypt and then in France where he was wounded. The Stars in the Night took my breath away as I was transported to some of the same places where my grandfather had been.

Clare Rhoden tells the story of Harry Fletcher, who with his foster brother Eddie heads off in December 1914 from Semaphore, a town in South Australia to Egypt, Gallipoli and France. He leaves behind the love of his life, Nora and despite the fact they’re from different backgrounds, his desire to come back and marry her drives him to survive.

The author artfully takes us on a journey and what a journey it is.

Through Egypt –

‘every bit of Egypt, from the vomit and crap in the ward to the bustling, slovenly, thieving damn streets, stank like damnation.’

To Gallipoli –

‘Anzac Cove had a stench, too, higher that the waste out the back of the butcher shop in January. Australian and Turkish dead lay bloating between the lines.’

To the trenches of France –

‘There was watery mud up to his chin. The trick was not to swallow any.
He stretched his right leg beneath him. The mud stirred like cold lumpy soup and he found
some sort of purchase… he drove his foot into whatever – whoever – was underneath him.’

At times it’s gut-wrenching as we’re put right into the action. The love and friendship Harry has for Eddie was touching as was the camaraderie the soldiers had for each other. War is not confined to the fight itself but lingers long afterwards into lives and future generations. And Harry’s fight, like so many others never stops.

This is a very well researched and beautifully written novel with wonderful characters. I found it difficult to put down and at times quite emotional. If you haven’t read anything about this war, then try this new release. And even if WW1 is your thing, read it anyway. You won’t be sorry.

Copy provided courtesy of Clare Rhoden Clare Rhoden webpage

Buy links

The Stars in the Night

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