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.

A Perfect Stone: Special Offer For 5 Days Only

 

How quickly a year passes. It’s the first anniversary since the launch of A Perfect Stone. So what’s happened in the last twelve months?

The cover received a Gold Star Award in the E-book Cover Design Awards for December 2018.

It was shortlisted for Book of the Month in July 2019 by Discovering Diamonds in England.

The reviews have been wonderful:

‘the author wastes not a word in evoking sympathy for those most vulnerable members of society,’ Helen

‘I loved the writing and the fastidious research and simply couldn’t put it down.‘ Meredith

‘This is a wonderful book. It is informative, wrenching and hopeful. A must-read.‘ Sara

‘ a vivid and engaging novel that brims with believable characters and a great deal of observational wisdom.’ Clare

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/41543705-a-perfect-stone

 

We’d like to celebrate by heavily discounting the ebook for the next five days only from Amazon.

 

 

 

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.

Movie Review: Ad Astra

Who doesn’t love a good old science fiction space film? There have been a few, Gravity, Interstellar and of course my personal favourite, The Martian. So I was looking forward to checking out the latest space movie, Ad Astra.

Ray McBride (played by Brad Pitt) is an astronaut who follows in his famous father’s footsteps. His father, Clifford McBride (played by Tommy Lee Jones)is revered by all for his space research and is given the assignment to captain the Lima project to find out if there is any life out there. The mission is sent to the edge of the solar system and there’s been no contact for over sixteen years until a series of power surges strong enough to threaten human life occurs. The authorities believe the source of the surges comes from the Lima project space station somewhere near Neptune. So begins Roy’s mission to reach his father, stop the power surges and at the same time, deal with his feelings of abandonment and loss and work out why he can’t maintain a relationship with anyone especially his ex-wife Eve (played by Liv Tyler).

The opening of the film shows Roy climbing some sort of scaffold which is high enough in the earth’s atmosphere to warrant a spacesuit. Extraordinarily, the scaffold seems to be rising up from the earth which would be one hell of a climb. A surge shakes the structure and Roy falls. Luckily he has a parachute and although falling pieces of metal damage the parachute as he plummets to earth, he somehow survives virtually unscathed. But let’s move on.

The setting is described as some time in the near future but the commercial Virgin flight to the Moon and the fifteen hundred people living on Mars tells you it might be set in fifty plus years. Donned in a space suit, Roy asks the Virgin hostess for a blanket pack and she shoots back by telling him that’ll cost him $125. Why he needed a blanket over his space suit, I don’t know.

Once Roy reaches the Moon he has to take a rocket from a top-secret location to Mars. He and an old friend of his dad’s Colonel Pruitt (Donald Sutherland) are escorted in moon buggies across rugged terrain to the top-secret rocket site and of course, are chased by moon pirates. Why? I don’t know. Did it add to the tension? It only added to the implausibility. Of course, everyone dies and with Roy taking over the driving he and the Colonel manage to get there in one piece. Or did they? Why someone like Colonel Pruitt who must be eighty-five plus and barely able to walk is accompanying Roy is strange? Now I’m not trying to be ageist but I’d imagine peak physical and mental fitness would be a given to work in space. Surely Pruitt would have hung up his spacesuit years ago.

Anyway, Pruitt can’t go to Mars – he has to have an operation and of course, he isn’t fit. Space Alert! He was never fit! Roy heads off to Mars as a VIP in the secret space rocket. On the way, the Captain receives a mayday call from a Norwegian biomedical research space station. He decides to investigate but the co-pilot is too scared to spacewalk over and knock on the door, so Roy volunteers. After a tussle with a couple of mutant apes, Roy comes back to the ship with the dead Captain. After a funeral, a few words to God and jettisoning the body, the co-pilot proceeds to Mars only to freeze in fear when another power surge shakes the ship so they can’t land. You guessed it! Good ol’ Roy takes over because he can basically do everything.

Once on Mars, Roy’s mission is meant to end when he records a message to his father in the hope the authorities can trace where the old man is and finish him off. Why Roy had to go to Mars to do this simple task is anybody’s guess. Technology can get a rocket to Mars it seems, but not a recorded message.

Of course, Roy has to get off Mars, appropriate another rocket, accidentally kill a few crew members, including the scaredy-cat co-pilot, (whoops) and head to Neptune in seventy-nine days to find his father, nuke his ship, stop the surges and bring the old man home to face the music. How does a little spaceship in Neptune create powerful enough surges to almost wipe out the human race? Who the hell knows?

You’ve got to take an enormous leap of faith with this movie and I guess that’s the same for all space movies. But in this case, the leap is much larger than most. Throw away all logical rationale and those pesky questions for which you will get no answers and enjoy the ride through the beauty that is the solar system. The effects are as you would expect, the acting is strong enough and the dialogue is sparse with lots of close-ups of Brad’s face and a tear or two.

This really is a story about a man’s conflicted feelings about his father, his boyhood hero. He just happens to be dealing with it in space. In all those days of space travel, Roy has plenty of time to ponder on his relationships trying to come to terms with who he is and who he wants to be.

You’ll have to check it out if you want to know if he makes peace with his dad, if anyone can really hear you scream in space and if the Lima mission really did find out if there was anyone else out there. I’ll leave it to you to decide.

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.

Restaurant Review: Rokkbank & Co, 334 Clarendon St, South Melbourne.

 

I know my reviews are usually confined to books but I thought I’d branch out this week and for those of you who live in Melbourne, this one’s for you. For everyone else, perhaps you might be enticed to visit our beautiful city.

Last week I had the pleasure of dining at Rokkbank & Co with a group of friends. Walking through the front door we were led down an aisle where the glass floor revealed a well-lit room containing an impressive wine cellar. We were shown to a large booth of luxurious green velvet.

Author Pic: Underground Cellar (yes, that’s my foot at the bottom of the pic)

The first thing I noticed in this full restaurant was the noise. There was none! Just a low murmuring from other diners and soft background music subtle enough without being intrusive. What a pleasure to eat, drink and talk in surroundings where you can actually hear each other. We knew we’d be in for a perfect evening when our attentive waiter, David explained patiently what was on offer and our stomachs rumbled with anticipation. No sharing tonight, we got to order exactly as we pleased and because we were a party of eight, there was no compulsion for a set menu as so many restaurants require. Not that you can’t have a degustation menu if you wanted it because it was certainly available for $130 per person. But that wasn’t what we were after.

Our first course choices were varied and ranged from oysters, Japanese seafood plate, quail, duck eggs to name a few. The prices were reasonable ranging from $16 (for the soup) to $26 (for the Japanese seafood plate). Being a cold night I chose Cream Jerusalem Artichoke Soup Panko crumbed marinated goats cheese, shiso, and toasted pine nuts. When it arrived there was the cheese and toasted pine nuts and just as I opened my mouth to say something, David swooped in and poured the soup into the bowl (see pic below).

Photo from Rokkbank Webpage Artichoke Soup

I’m still thinking about that soup and could have licked the bowl but of course, didn’t. Some of my friends ordered the Blue Swimmer Crab wonton ravioli. The servings were generous and delicious, particularly when paired with a rose.

Authors Pic: Blue Swimmer Crab Wonton Ravioli

The main course choices were equally interesting and ranged in price from $32 to $ 39.  I chose the Roasted Western Plains suckling pig saddle and barbecued leg while others selected White Miso baked Japanese black cod fillet or slow-cooked lamb shank. Again, generously portioned so much so we could barely fit in dessert. But in the interests of checking out the full menu, we forced ourselves to share two desserts and with eight spoons we weren’t disappointed.

Author Pic: Suckling Pig Saddle

Chef Brendan McQueen has certainly provided a menu of interesting dishes with Japanese and Asian influences with the freshest of ingredients. The cocktails are interesting and there is a bar for a pre-dinner drink and the wine list is good. We’ll be heading back there again, I hope very soon.

Check it out https://www.rokkbank.com/ and enjoy.