The cover is amazing and I knew I was in for something powerful when I read the first line of this book. “In the weatherboard house at the end of the lane, nine-year-old Alice Hart sat at her desk by the window and dreamed of ways to set her father on fire.”
Alice is the daughter of an abusive father. When tragedy strikes, Alice finds herself living with a grandmother she didn’t know she had, on a native flower farm where she grows up loved and protected. Her grandmother, June, a tormented woman with hidden secrets loves Alice with such an intensity that when she betrays her granddaughter to protect her, sets off a course for Alice neither of whom can reverse.
This is an expansive novel covering twenty years with twists and turns as the family secrets unravel and Alice finds out about her tumultuous past. The first hundred or so pages are gripping and I found myself holding my breath. The family violence is harrowing but thankfully short-lived. Then the narrative slows in the second third and meanders almost in a healing way as Alice settles into her new life at the native flower farm. The reader, unlike Alice is led tauntingly into the family secrets. June communicates best through flowers and this is emphasised cleverly when each chapter opens with the name of a native flower reflecting the theme. Frustration grows as June is unable to tell Alice the truth about her family and for me this was a touch longer than I would have liked. There was some repetition and at times, Alice’s behaviour seemed to be at odds for a child with trauma. The last third, however was a page turner and I was unable to put it down.
I enjoyed the supporting characters, Twig, Lulu, Candy who all offered Alice their strength when needed. June was more complex and I felt little sympathy for her. The settings from the lush tropics to the red outback are wonderfully portrayed as of course are the flowers.
This is a story of loss, love and betrayal, and I now see native flowers in a very different way.
I was filled with sadness but more importantly hope when I finished this book. Sadness because I wanted more. Hope, because in the end I wanted the best for the characters of Sarah and especially her granddaughter Hannah. These two characters’ sail halfway around the world from America to Australia so that Sarah can be reunited with the family she left as a war bride to begin a new life in America. Her granddaughter Hannah accompanies her and we are privy not only to the unfolding of Sarah’s life but that of her granddaughter.
The history of American soldiers in Australia is beautifully told but the little known fact that hundreds of Australian war brides were shipped out after the war was astounding. As an Australian in America, Sarah confronts not only a new life as a bride but the harshness of acceptance. Her accent is both ridiculed and admired as she confronts choices as to how she wants to live and the secrets she keeps from the family she escaped from in Australia. Her granddaughter on the other hand has a different set of concerns with secrets she can’t share which cause her suffering and heartache.
On the journey, Sarah reveals her past to her granddaughter and the reason why she hadn’t been home for more than sixty years. This forces Hannah to confront her own secret. The love they have for each other is heart-warming and the split narrative works very nicely. I warmed to both characters and wanted to know more about Hannah and her disorder and we are left wondering and hoping that she will deal with it.
This is a thoroughly researched novel, easy to read and compelling. Give it a go.
Castle of Dreams is an intriguing story about two sisters who fall in love with the same American soldier during WW2 against a backdrop of a tropical rainforest of a northern Queensland castle. That was more than enough enticement to make me read the book. Coupled with family secrets, regret, loss and lies, Castle of Dreams is a fast paced and enjoyable story which spans from the 1930’s to 2009.
Using split time lines, Elise McCune’s descriptive writing transports the reader to the Castle in Northern Queensland which is known by Australians as Paronella Park. I remember driving past it a few years ago wondering how and why it was there. A castle plonked in the middle of the rainforest seems so incredibly out of place. Yet Elise McCune builds a story around it and its history. Additionally, the historical facts around American soldiers and the animosity by the Australian servicemen was well portrayed.
The mysterious family secret unravels slowly and when you think you know what it is, a twist takes you on an unexpected path. The mostly female characters are well drawn and the portrayal of unwed mothers in the two timelines is contrasted well.
Overall very satisfying and if you’re looking for a holiday read or one to transport to another time and place then grab this one.
A lot has been said about this much lauded book. Its resurrection from the 1980’s with the well-known mini- series has found a greater appreciation and a fresh audience and is relevant in its message today as it was then.
I read it many years ago in my twenties and having read it again for the second time found a new appreciation. This dystopian novel puts us in an oppressed world where women whose rights and freedoms are stripped away are forced into specific roles – Handmaids are to breed; Martha’s are domestic workers etc. Offred is one of those Handmaids who gives us snippets of her life before the takeover by the Gilead regime and what led her to her present.
The writing style, as with all Margaret Atwood novels is exquisite.
“We learned to whisper almost without sound. In the semi-darkness we could stretch out our arms, when the Aunts weren’t looking, and touch each other’s hands across the space. We learned to lip-read, our heads flat on the beds, turned sideways, watching each other’s mouths. In this way we exchanged names, from bed to bed.”
We know from the turn of page one that all is not right in a regime most of us could barely imagine. Yet some of the ideas about the treatment of women are not a forecast but I’d suggest a probable reality somewhere in the world. Who could forget the kidnapping of two hundred girls in Nigeria by the Boko Haram and what life those survivors endure? Oppression and religious zealotry is still rife in many parts of the world. Margaret Atwood does a great job of showing us how this feels through the voice of Offred. Yet, it’s telling is also reminiscent of our past and how far we have to go for women everywhere to have true choice.
The Handmaid’s Tale is profound and disturbing yet thought provoking. If you haven’t read it, it’s time you did.
New mother Rachel has a screaming baby, little support and fears for herself and her child. Coupled with her feelings of desperation is a deep seated issue of finding her missing father which compels her to abandon her baby girl and her bewildered husband.
It’s a heartbreaking story as the author explores family relationships and breaks down what is means to be thrust into motherhood. Rachel, an American, lives away from family and friends with her Australian husband in Sydney. The stress of adjustment is too much and she seeks out her friend in India where she attempts to sort herself out. Her journey takes her to Germany amidst the ire of her mother’s disapproval and her husband’s dismay.
Eleanor Limprecht writes well and gives us a moving yet unsettling story. Motherhood is often put on a godlike pedestal surrounded by unrealistic expectations and what new mother can’t identify with this? We feel for Rachel yet want her to desperately to come to her senses and this makes for a page turner. The discovery about her father is a shock although I wonder if her response to him in her psychological state might have made for a different ending.
All in all, an enjoyable and easy read.
Kathy is brought up in an exclusive boarding school where the students are sheltered from the outside world but considered to be special. She has numerous friends but her closest is Ruth. When they leave school, their lives drift apart as they go their separate ways until one day they meet in unusual circumstances and rekindle their friendship. The story is essentially a series of vignettes as Kathy reminisces and tries make sense of her upbringing and her relationships with Ruth and Tommy.
I’ve mixed feelings about this book. There’s shock, there’s tedium but there’s enough in it to keep you compelled to read more. It’s because when you really understand what thirty-one-year-old Kathy’s purpose in life actually is, you want to know more. The tedium is the day-to-day unfolding of Kathy’s memories as a child right down to the minute detail and this is what I had most trouble with.
‘What Ruth said that time in our dorm after lights-out, about how Tommy had brought all his problems on himself, probably summed up what most people at Hailsham thought at the time. But it was when she said what she did that it occurred to me, as I lay there, that this whole notion of his deliberately not trying was one that had been doing the rounds from as far back as Juniors. And it came home to me, with a kind of chill, that Tommy had been going through what he’s been going through not just weeks or months, but for years.”
There is an underlying horror amongst the everyday as we learn why the children are all there. Once I knew what was really going on, I was impatient for the why’s which never really come and in the end don’t matter. A love triangle forms between Kathy, Ruth and Tommy which can sadly go nowhere. Yet what we think as simple side stories and analytical reminisces by Kathy all serves a purpose as the story winds its way back to the intriguing present day and an end we sadly know must come.
It’s a love story, a tragedy, and a coming of age in a world perhaps not out of the realm of possibility. It also makes you think about what it is to be human and why, for the most part they, like us, accept the conditioning of life’s designated path. Cleverly written, I’d be willing to read another by this author.
Beautifully written and almost lyrical in composition, we are transported to another time and place.
In 1922, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, a Russian aristocrat is arrested and sentenced to house arrest at his residence in the Hotel Metropole in Moscow. Trapped within the confines of a small attic room, Rostov learns to master his circumstances and we, as the reader are taken on a journey with him for the next thirty years.
We are pulled into the daily rituals of the Count’s life: squats and stretches upon waking, a breakfast of biscuits and fruit, downstairs to read the papers, lunch in the hotel’s Piazza and his weekly appointment at the hotel’s barber. We are slowly and delightfully swept along with all that happens. We grow to love not just the Count and the Metropole itself but the characters within: the infamous grumpy Chef Emile at the Boyarsky restaurant; the dependable seamstress, Marina; the beautiful Anna; the tortured poet, Mischa and the refreshing nine-year-old child, Nina who shows Rostov the surprises of life in the bustling hotel frequented by the Party’s hierarchy, foreign correspondents and famous actresses.
Exquisitely prepared food and good wine is a central theme as is philosophical points around what it is to be Russian and we are treated to an array of views on politics, art, music, mathematics and literature. After all, a gentleman must be well educated to be a good conversationalist. We are privy to it all as we meander through the years of hardship, war, collectives and famine. Then in the last quarter of the book the tension builds to a captivating twist filled with espionage, a cat and mouse chase and a nod to Humphrey Bogart which will leave you laughing.
It is a long book (753 pages) and while it may seem daunting, you barely notice. There is so much to love about this book and it will stay with you long after the last page is turned. In fact, a second reading would no doubt reveal even more. What an engaging and enlightening read it is.
I read the first page late at night and although barely more than a paragraph, I put it down in fright. Not because it was bad but because it was so horrifying, I was scared to read more. A few days later, I picked it up again, moved past that first haunting page and read the next fifty pages in one sitting. I’m glad I did as there was a crowd of characters to keep track of and I knew then, this was not a book where you read a couple of pages a night. I reserved two to three hour reading sessions to remember who was dead, who was alive and what they all had to do with each other.
Nel Abbot is found dead in the Drowning Pool with a suspicion of suicide. It so happens that Katie, the teenage friend, of her daughter Lena was found dead, months earlier in the same spot which had been a place of many a woman’s death through the century’s, hence the name of the spot. Nel’s sister, Jules (who, we are repeatedly told doesn’t like being called by her correct name Julia) hasn’t spoken to her sister since she was a young teenager and is called back to her old home to look after Lena. The mystery of the deaths unravels from the point of view of ten characters and it becomes very clear that there is a vault of secrets and lies in the town.
There were moments of suspense which fell away as the clues came together. Some of the characters had little depth and I found it difficult to believe their behaviour in particular, Sean Townsend, the Detective Inspector and his wife Helen and even Katie. The inclusion of the mystic, Nicki, seemed to be a red herring which we could have done without. Jules seemed remote reflecting on her broken relationship with her sister and we learn very little else about this thirty something woman. Her reactions were self-centred enough to lose some credibility. I wonder if this book would have been better had there been less characters and a concentration of effort on Nel, Jules and Lena?
Was it on par with Girl on a Train? It wasn’t as good but perhaps my expectation was heightened because of the first book. However, it was a compelling enough read and a page turner, perhaps because I wanted it to end. It held my interest but it wasn’t brilliant.
It feels good to go back in time and read a classic. I read The Godfather by Mario Puzo many years ago and indeed it is a classic. The Fortunate Pilgrim, written before The Godfather and published in 1965 is no less so. But unlike The Godfather, The Last Don and many of Puzo’s legendary novels centred around men, this book is about an uneducated, peasant woman, Lucia Santa, plonked into New York’s Hell’s Kitchen from Italy.
It is said that Lucia Santa is Puzo’s mother and what a woman she must have been. Her life as you can expect, is not easy with six children, one dead husband and another husband with mental illness. Lucia Santa, has the strength of several men, ruling her family with an iron fist through the Depression and War. Like so many women past and present around the world, she can’t afford to succumb to self-pity and has no choice than to work hard to protect and nurture her brood in order to survive.
Puzo captures summer in New York in the Tenements with the community of Italian women whose lives were governed by poverty yet pioneers in their own right. … ‘they moved in a sadder wilderness, where the language was strange, where their children became members of a different race.’
The language is almost poetic as we are introduced to Lucia’s seventeen-year-old son Lorenzo, riding his black horse through the streets of New York in 1928. One by one, Puzo allows us into the lives of the older children, giving tantalising glimpses of other families on the street and takes us on a journey of struggle, despair, and joy until the second World War.
The characters are well drawn and we learn of the petty small mindedness of the community in which Lucia Santa lives. ‘What cronies they were. How they ran to each other’s apartments, up and down the stairs, into the adjoining tenements… taste this special dish. After the initial pity and condolences, the true face of the world showed itself to Lucia Santa.’
The writing is inspirational and is truly a wonderful chronical of a matriarch and the immigrant’s life.
I’d heard about this book and closed the final page last night. It did not disappoint. What began as a slow boil exploded in the last quarter of the book and I was unable to put it down.
Eleanor is a thirty-year-old woman who lives on the fringe of society. She is a creature of habit, working at an office during the week, doing cross words, eating pizza and drinking vodka on the weekend by herself in her tiny flat. She cocoons herself away and you know there is something not quite right. She’s never known the warm touch of love and wonders what it might be like. Her observations of the world around her are comical, sad and poignant. What social interactions she has, is extremely awkward and naïve until she meets Raymond who works at the same company and takes the time to try to understand her.
To reveal too much would spoil it, but this novel is a study of loneliness and isolation which we often associate with the elderly, not someone of this age. Eleanor’s awkwardness and naiveté makes for some very funny moments. If you think the story sounds a bit morbid, it isn’t. Eleanor is a survivor and to watch her grow is glorious. The author cleverly hints about her childhood and builds on it until the explosive reveal toward the end, when we discover why Eleanor is the way she is.
It’s memorable and heart-warming. I really enjoyed it.
Every so often a book comes along to shake up storytelling. This seems to be one such book.
The premise is relatively simple. Set in a cemetery at night, a grieving Abraham Lincoln visits his eleven-year-old dead son who is caught in a nasty and unpleasant realm called a Bardo.
Ghosts, who for some reason think they’re not dead, roam freely around the cemetery. This was a bit of a stretch, but then, this is the fantasy part. The reader is bombarded with a cacophony of ghostly characters (said to be more than 150) each voicing their thoughts and anguish as lost spirits caught in between worlds. The reason is not altogether apparent to them (or the reader), but it seems they’ve done something bad somewhere in their lives. Most of the narration is dominated by three men and female spirits are few. Perhaps, I like to think, they are generally good souls who have gone straight to the afterlife, while the rest are not.
I’d heard about this Booker Prize winning novel and thought the premise had merit. Not being terribly familiar with American history of the Civil War, I expected to learn a lot. From the first few pages, I became hopelessly confused with the one or two-line dialogue per character. I read a review which explained the book and then I re-read the beginning again. Maybe it’s me, but should I be confused about what’s happening and have to resort to someone else to explain?
Other sections of the book were excerpts from essays, books or newspapers of the time. This was interesting and clever of Saunders as it gave an insight of how history is interpreted depending on what side you’re on. There’s not much of a plot or development of characters and none that you really warm to. Although I did feel something for Willie Lincoln, the son. But I guess this was not the intention, after all, this is not a book like any other. The reader must work at it and read carefully even when some parts make no sense or may seem superfluous. I confess to skimming sections yet being thoroughly absorbed in other parts.
The writing is good and reads almost like a play, poetry and encyclopaedia all rolled into one. There’s humour, amazement, frustration and boredom. The reader is provoked and prodded but I’ll admit, I almost gave up.
Yes, it’s not like any other book I’ve read before. I know this book is acclaimed and lauded by many others who loved it. Did I enjoy it? I can’t say I did. It was adequate enough for me to have finished it. Maybe I should re-read it again. It probably warrants it. But there are too many other books more worthy of my time. A word of advice – try and read it in one sitting. I think it might work better than a few pages a day.
This book is extraordinary.
I know that’s a big call but let me explain why after I explain the premise.
Justine is a child, abandoned by her mother when she was a toddler and barely noticed by her irresponsible and occasional father. She is brought up by her paternal grandfather who is haunted by his experience as a POW on the Burma Railway. The two desperately need each other, finding sanctuary with the chooks on an isolated property next to the Murray River. Justine is not just abandoned by her family but by the system too and lives as an outcast in the shadow of her father’s criminal activities. As she grows into her teenage self, she encounters great difficulties which make little sense to her until she makes a decision.
From the first page to the last, the writing is exquisite. Told from the point of view of Justine, Laguna masters the language to expertly capture the essence of young innocence and bewilderment in an aggressive and incomprehensible world of males. The drawing of the characters is masterful. You want to reach into the pages and pluck Justine from her surroundings and her poverty, to reassure her that life can be better. But we can’t, and when there are glimmers of hope, they’re dashed. Her pain is our pain as we observe Justine trying to make sense of her situation and when she decides to wrestle control of her life from the incompetence of others, it’s gripping.
The story and the writing resonated long after the book’s ending and remained with me, weeks after finishing.
I think this maybe my book of the year. Yet it’s only February.
I’d heard about this book and the author, and when I saw it the other day, I just had to buy it. And no, it’s not on my list for 2018.
It’s another crime novel for me, (remember I only started reading this genre a few months ago) set in a fictitious town in coastal Victoria, Australia. I’m really getting into some truly wonderful stories. Resurrection Bay is no exception.
Caleb Zelic is a deaf man whose insights into people’s behaviour allow him to pick up clues when on the hunt for the killer of his childhood friend. As a private security investigator he works with his partner, ex-cop Frankie who has her own demons. All they have is the text message to Caleb from his dying friend. Caleb uses lip reading and facial expressions to communicate and is a master with body language. But he fails to see what’s going on behind his back as he stumbles headlong into danger. Along the way, he learns unpleasant truths not just about the people around him but himself as well.
From the first paragraph to the last, I was gripped by the authors writing. It’s fast paced and I found I had to slow down my reading to keep up with the many minor characters in the story. I loved the main characters particularly Caleb who refuses to allow his deafness to dominate his life. This is handled extremely well and gave a lot of insight into how deaf people deal with their environment. There’s a lot to like about Caleb and his vulnerability. I found myself flinching as I almost yelled out loud telling him to watch out. Luckily, I was in the privacy of my own lounge room.
No wonder it’s won lots of awards. It’s well written and a quick and easy read. Give it a go. I’m sure you won’t be disappointed.
Kate and Harriet are best friends who grow up on an isolated cape in the 1880’s where their fathers are the lighthouse keepers. They do everything together and as they grow into young women their lives are disrupted by the arrival of a man, McPhail. A moment in his cabin changes their lives forever.
The author, picked over the bones of a true story and imagined the lives of the girls. From the first line and last lines in the prologue, the reader is propelled head-long toward the climax.
“The sky was clear and blue forever that day.”
“I remember the way Harriet turned, breathless, laughing, a strand of her golden hair caught on her bottom lip. After that, I try not to remember.”
We are dropped into the stunning wilderness of the cape near Jervis Bay, NSW, and into the lives of the families. We are privy to everything about the girl’s friendship, their deep love for each other and the expectation of them as young women in that era. Loyalties are tested and
risks taken as we are led to the edge of the cliff and back again.
The writing is beautiful and evocative; the cover stunning. This is a wonderful Australian debut novel by Kate Mildenhall.
Marija Pericic won the Vogel Prize for this stunning debut novel set in Prague in 1908. Pericic reimagines the relationship between literary giants, Max Brod and Franz Kafka.
Knowing little about either novelist, I was quickly drawn into a story full of anguish, tension and human fragility. The author veered away from the known story that Brod was asked by his friend Kafka, on his death bed to destroy all of his unpublished work. Instead, Brod publishes it making sure that posthumously, Kafka is revered and honoured into the future.
What happens though, if history is rewritten? What if Brod, a tortured man with physical disabilities is filled with self-doubt and actually loathes Kafka as his rival? What if Brod falls in love with a girl who loves Kafka? It makes for a compelling read. Does it matter that the work is fiction? It’s an interesting take on historical figures. Events are true but the rest is not.
The writing and development of characters was exquisite as we are taken into Brod’s point of view. His disability is a key theme “The tongues of those who inhabited my world were silent, but their eyes were not. Their eyes spoke, that sea of eyes through which I moved each day. They glanced and looked in secret and averted their gazes, and this looking and not-looking spoke louder than any voice of disgust, curiosity or, worst of all, pity.”
Life in Prague in the early 1900’s is rich with description and mood which changes with the deterioration of Brod’s mind. The twist at the end caught me by surprise leaving me yearning for more.
I loved Martel’s Booker Prize Winner, Life of Pi and was keen to read The High Mountains of Portugal. This is not so much a novel but three separate stories spanning a century. It begins in 1904 when a young man, Tomas goes in search of an artefact which he believes will jeopardise Christianity. Using the strange mode of transport for its time, the motor car, Martel takes us on an interesting journey. Thirty-five years later a Portuguese pathologist devoted to Agatha Christie murder mysteries finds himself in his own murder mystery. Fifty years on, a grieving Canadian goes to a village in Portugal with a chimpanzee and Tomas’s initial quest is brought full circle.
Part fable and fantasy Martel takes us on an almost spiritual journey. The detail is sometimes laborious and at other times fascinating. Try to imagine getting into a vehicle for the first time when there was none around and navigating it in first gear through gawking villagers who’ve never seen a car before. I laughed when Tomas parked the car under a tree. Later he realises that he did not know how to reverse the car and instead chopped the tree down only to be faced with a stump which he could not drive over. However, the journey, at times, becomes all most as tedious as a real life one. I found myself skipping some repetitive sections to get to the point. The second story meandered. Although the third was better.
It’s not a fast paced read and it has little in plot. Yet the themes of love and loss are delicately weaved into what is sometimes absurd surrealism. Martel writes beautifully and plays with style and ideas, but I’m afraid this wasn’t quite enough for me.
Aaron Falk, a Federal police officer returns to his hometown in country Victoria to attend the funeral of his former childhood friend Luke, who murdered his wife and son then turned the gun on himself. Behind the scenes, lies the twenty-year-old history of the death of a teenage girl which still haunts Aaron and the town. Luke’s grieving parents, plead with Aaron to investigate what they can’t accept as a murder-suicide and together with a local policeman, he unwinds more than he bargains for.
The tone of the novel is pure Australian small town and the author does a wonderful job of pulling us right into the pace never letting us go. It gets into your head as you wonder why Luke stopped his killing spree with his baby daughter, the only survivor. The heat and the drought are nothing new to Australians and is a supporting role in this story of survival as it climaxes toward the end. Anticipating what we think will happen next is thwarted by a twist.
Beautifully written, the buzzing blow flies and blast of hot air made me shudder as I read the opening pages. It’s not often that I am unable to put a book down, but with this one, I read it until I finished. I wanted to know what really happened and when you read it, you will too.
The novel opens in a small Australian country town with a young policeman informing Chris Rogers that her younger sister, Bella Michaels may have been found after having been reported missing. He asks Chris to identify the brutally slain body which turns out to be Bella.
Unlike so many crime novels, this is told mostly from the point of view of Chris and we feel every bit of her anguish. ‘The loss of her is already too much and then there’s the other thing – the end of being loved in the way only my sister could love me. What I feel for her survives and that hurts like battery acid every minute, but worse is that what she felt for me died with her. I will never be loved like that again. ‘
Twelve years older than Bella, our hearts break as the relationship and the intense love between Chris and her only sister is revealed. We’re introduced to Nate, Chris’s truckie ex-husband and their complicated relationship.
The crime and the police investigation is secondary to how the people who are left behind deal with the trauma of loss. The writing is superbly raw and honest and delves into themes of an ever-present feeling of violence, vulnerability and fear felt by many women particularly heightened in the aftermath of a vicious crime. About men’s violence on women, the following paragraph is the most poignant of all.
‘And there are men who don’t cause quite so much damage and so are all too happy to publicise the worst so they can look mild in comparison, and men who do no violence and so don’t see how it is their problem that others do, and here are men who want us to know about the bad and the worse and the negligent so that we go to them for protection and there are men … who are pure and good of heart and intent and who want only to be our friends and brothers and lovers but we have no way of telling those from the others until it’s too late and that, perhaps is the most unbearable thing of all.’
On the other side, is the media’s portrayal of a slain girl who is interesting only because she is young and pretty and the relentless pursuit for an angle at all costs. And this is where we’re put into journalist, May Norman’s point of view. We read her posts just as we would the newspaper. She too must deal with the aftermath of the murder and her job of reporting, while escaping from her own loss of love. If there is any weakness at all in this novel, it would be this character whom I found difficult to warm to.
Shortlisted for the Miles Franklin and Stella prize in 2017, this is an important novel to read, well executed and exquisitely written.
The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes is about the life of Russian composer, Dmitri Shostakovich. You may well have heard of Shostakovich and his music. Successful in Russia, he enjoyed acclaim, until at the age of 30, he wrote an opera attended by Stalin who hated it. This was a time when millions of people were murdered by Stalin and Shostakovich fully expected to be one of them after his work, previously acclaimed was denounced in 1936.
‘Lenin found music depressing.
Stalin thought he understood and appreciated music.
Khrushchev despised music.
Which is the worst for a composer?’ thought Dmitri Shostakovich.
Surviving, he spends his life as a pawn by the State to suit their own political agenda.
In three parts, the author illuminates us with details of Shostakovich’s early life, his marriages, his music, his friends and enemies; and life in the Soviet Union through several decades until his death in 1975. The reader gets a sense of Shostakovich’s insecurities, his obsessions and the constant compromise for his art in order to survive and regain a foothold into the elite when he regains popularity following Stalin’s death.
I’d never heard of the composer and have never read anything by Julian Barnes who won the Pulitzer Prize for an earlier novel called The Sense of Ending.
The novel opens with Shostakovich standing by a lift, suitcase in hand waiting to learn his fate after he is denounced. I was fascinated by the life of Shostakovich and also the Soviet Union particularly under Stalin. Unfortunately for me, that’s where the fascination stopped.
There was a lot of detail about three significant events in the composer’s life. However, it became wooden as this fictional biography disintegrated into an essay about the constraints of creativity in a totalitarian society and less about the feelings of the man and those around him. The author doesn’t make it easy as there’s a plethora of unfamiliar names and places which became confusing. Although well written, the story meandered in the second half into a general narrative. The end reads like a biography of facts told with little emotion and could have almost qualified for a Wikipedia entry. “Two years after he joined the Party, he married again: Irina Antonovna. Her father had been victim of the Cult of Personality; she herself was brought up in an orphanage for children of enemies of the state; now worked in music publishing.”
Reading this short book did compel me to read more and listen to the composer’s music, which wasn’t too my taste. Shostakovich led a difficult life and I’m grateful for the extra knowledge and glad I persisted. But my advice would be to read up on the composer before you tackle this one – it might make more sense.
In 1964, Bert Cousins gate crashes a christening party being thrown by a colleague for his daughter, Franny Keating. Impulsively kissing his colleague’s wife, Bert’s actions set off a chain of events intertwining both the Cousin and Keating families together for the rest of their lives.
This story takes us through the trials and tribulations of blended families and how the behaviour of parents can have a long lasting effect on their children.
Growing up in the ’60’s with little parental supervision was an upbringing for many of us which, in today’s world, would probably be considered neglect. For many, there were no lasting consequences but for the blended family of six children in this novel, there is. What happens is cleverly teased across the story by the author.
As an adult, Franny meets a writer and releases her family’s story to him which is published years later. Instead of being a critical turning point, as we expect, this event blends itself into the narrative. The expected uproar never really eventuates and we are left wondering why.
Voyeuristically, we are party to the lives of each of the family members and their relationships. And the author compels us to want to know how they turn out. I thought the climax would be the coming together of the family during a funeral, but the novel twisted further into the future leaving me wanting closure on some of the siblings such as Holly and Albie.
The author delivered characters so well that I felt I knew them. I cared what happened and wanted to be part of it. It’s not perfect, it jumps point of view on occasion, some loose ends were left, but the strength of the characters and the style of the writing is hypnotic. I really enjoyed it and am sorry it’s ended.
Check it out for yourself.
Paul Johnson, a bank officer in Manchester rebels against his father’s wishes and joins Her Britannic Majesty’s Corps of Royal Marines at the age of 19.
It’s 1960 and Paul finds himself with a motley group of recruits whose backgrounds are in stark contrast to his own. Sergeant Boswell is assigned to lead their Squad and his first introduction leaves you in no doubt that the reader is in for a no-nonsense ride.
“Now we’ve got you, the molly-coddling is over. When I say jump, you dinna ask how high; ya just put one-hundred-and-ten per-cent into it. Like it or not, you are going to be the best squad that ever passed through recruit training. If you canna make what I deem to be the acceptable grade, I will have you put back to the next squad. Hear me well. If I canna find a legitimate reason to have you back-squadded, I will beat the living shit out of you.”
The reader winces with Paul as he quickly learns the harsh realities of life when he realises his mistake right before he receives his first punishment.
“I almost laughed. Perhaps I did laugh. It was an involuntary reaction that I immediately knew was wrong, so all that escaped me was, I thought, an inaudible hiccup. Although we were already quiet, we seemed to become instantly quieter. I saw Boswell’s eyes widen. A cloud moved in front of the sun, as if to protect it. I’m sure birds stopped singing. The fearful silence seemed palpable. Only the innocent wind could be heard blowing around us.”
Paul becomes friends with ex-wrestler, Jack Mason and together they settle into the rigors of intense training to earn the coveted Green Beret with H squad, strangely nicknamed as Boswell’s Fairies. When not learning to be a marine, Paul and Jack go in search of romance, learning a lot about themselves and each other as they undergo the gruelling lessons of what it is to be a man, to love and to belong.
The writing is excellent, peppered with humour as the author takes us on a journey through England of the sixties. The language is as it should be, coarse and authentic. It made me laugh, it made me smile and it made me squirm. It’s a gripping tale of what was and now can never be in today’s world. A raw and honest portrayal of life as a marine in training. A powerfully written debut novel which takes you to another place.
I met Sulari Gentill at the Emerging Writers Festival held in Melbourne in 2014 when I first commenced my own writing journey. She was on a panel and I was in awe of the amount of work she’d completed in a very short time – five books in five years. I am sorry to say it’s taken this long to read her first book in the Rowland Sinclair series and I’m certainly not disappointed.
Rowland Sinclair is a wealthy young man from a prominent family whose lifestyle as an artist, is at odds with the rest of his family. Unwittingly he becomes embroiled in the political tensions of the early 1930’s when the fear of communism fuelled right wing ideas of revolution. When Rowland’s uncle is murdered, Rowland or Rowly as he is affectionately known, throws himself headlong into danger to find the culprit.
The book starts off slowly as the setting and characters establish themselves. Then, the action and tension begin. Sulari does a great job to transport the reader to a very different time and place. I was fascinated to learn about this tumultuous period of Australia’s history and excerpts from newspapers of the time at the beginning of each chapter is a clever way to provide the reader with extra information. It’s a well written first novel and I’m keen to read more from this author.
My second crime novel by an Australian in a month and I’m beginning to like this genre
Wyatt is a smart thief with scruples who’s been around long enough to be cautious and wily. Turning down a job in Melbourne with the haphazard Pepper brothers, he instead, accepts a job in Noosa to steal a painting. He’s meticulous in his planning, holding off the charms of the local real estate agent who freelances as a crook herself. But the plan dramatically unravels as Wyatt, using his wits fights to survive.
I don’t often read crime novels and this one was told from the criminal’s point of view. This is the first book I’ve read by Australian Garry Disher. I’d not heard of him until this book was recommended to me by a friend. Although, this is the eighth in a series, it appeared not to matter that I’d not read any of the earlier novels.
The start was slow as the story and characters were set up. Then the action started and I could barely put the book down. I enjoyed the description of places I know well. I didn’t really warm to any of the characters – well, they are crooks after all. The fast pace of violence and suspense hooked me as I tried to figure out the double cross. Oddly, I found myself on Wyatt’s side hoping he’d get away with the crime and survive.
Overall, I enjoyed the writing style. The Heat is an enjoyable holiday read, perfect to lose take you away from your everyday. I think I may now be hooked on crime novels especially by Garry Disher.
Having read Shriver’s incredible book, “We Need to Talk about Kevin,” I was very excited to read her latest. Set in 2029, this is a story about a family whose large inheritance is wiped out when America’s economy spirals into a financial abyss. The story follows the lives of the Mandible family and how they cope with hardship along with millions of others over the next twenty years.
The daily lives of the citizens are reminiscent of a country at war – spirally prices for scarce food, lack of water and no jobs – yet the country is not at war. This might be set in the future but I can think of a number of countries where this is happening in the present day.
The authors imaginary world includes accounting chips embedded into the necks of citizens to track their income and expenditure so as to ease the Government’s collection of a 70% tax rate; robots; flexscreens which are paper thin devices of communications. There’s a wall between America and Mexico which is designed to keep the subservient Americans out of affluent Mexico.
Most of the dialogue is dominated by the family’s obsession about the economics of their country’s plight. It is so heavy handed it becomes a bore of information dumping revealing little about the characters other than their sameness. This is what lost it for me. When the story actually gets going (after about page 200), I became more engaged. The family’s difficulties and their survival is interesting. But the lack of depth of the characters left me with little empathy for any of them. After 400 pages I knew little more about them and more importantly, cared less about them than I should have. Was I enlightened with all the economic speak? Not at all. An interesting premise could have given so much if the author had concentrated more on her characters.
I was disappointed as I expected more than was delivered. But then maybe, reading about the financial ales of a country like America is not a futuristic surprise just a daily reality for much of the world.
The Last Days of Ava Langdon by Mark O’Flynn was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award 2017. A tantalising story about the last day in the life of the eccentric and elderly writer, Ava Langdon. Set against the backdrop of the beautiful Blue Mountains, the author has very skilfully drawn an exquisite character, inspired loosely on the real life writer, Eve Langley. She dresses in men’s clothing, drinks from a sherry bottle in the park and apart from her machete which she carries with her, obsesses over her writing.
There is hardly a plot, as the author, almost poetically takes us through a day with Ava meandering around the township of Katoomba. We are inside her head as she imagines the stories of the locals who are wary and barely tolerant of a person they little understand. A recluse, we are given a tour of her derelict hut yet happy in her surroundings, she asks for no pity. There are hints of how she has arrived at such a place, alone and destitute. Our idea of how an elderly woman should behave is challenged as we’re taken with her to the café, the library, soup kitchen, the Post Office, the pub, and hospital.
A surprise visitor brings us a glimpse of her past and as the book ended, I was left wanting more of her sad back story. Not a long book, I enjoyed reading it, and the language was evocative and superbly crafted, but it might not be to everyone’s taste.
North Water is another book shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2016. Set in 1857, the story is about a whaling expedition which goes horribly wrong. There is conflict between two main characters, Drax, a disgusting and violent man and Sumner, a doctor.
The opening line “Behold the man” sparked my interest. The next paragraph led me down a path of the grotesque. The ensuing pages unfolded such violence, savagery and cruelty that I was tempted not to read on.
Drax and Sumner have dubious and contrasted pasts but we only learn about Sumner. I wondered what must have happened, for a man to become like Drax, who in the end, like the rest of the characters, I cared nothing for.
This book without formal warning is not for the faint hearted. I wondered if it was necessary to describe the killing of baby seals in such horrific detail. For me, this sort of violence was unnecessarily graphic and added little to the plot. Toning down the violence would have enhanced the book. The reader gets that it’s a tough life and harsh conditions without it being rammed constantly down our throats. The only thing that compelled me forward was the fact that there was another purpose for the expedition which becomes clear half-way through. Getting past this point, the story becomes one of survival which gripped me until the end. I wanted good to overcome evil and was rewarded for my patience, but what a journey I had to take to get there. Well written with evocative language, the fact that I shivered with the men in the freezing conditions, is a testament to where the author wanted me to be.
Read it if you dare.
Turia Pitt at 23, with a loving partner, great job and everything to look forward to, entered an ultramarathon in 2011 and was caught in a bushfire which changed her life forever. With burns to 65% of her body, her survival was miraculous as was her battle to adapt and fight.
I’d read a bit about Turia over the years from the media. What happened to her and other competitors was tragically avoidable. Her gut wrenching story unfolds bit by bit with the help of writer, Libby Harkness. The details of what happened and why, are clearly explained. I found myself caught up in the emotion, particularly when I read about her bravery and the steadfast courage and love from her partner, family and friends.
No parent wants what happened to Turia for their child and her mother’s dedication and belief in her daughter is incredibly moving. I challenge you to read it and not be affected. It truly is a story of inspiration not just of Turia but everyone around her who never gave up.
For anyone who is going through a hard time and thinks they can’t do something, read this book and I hope you’ll soon see that with the right mindset, you probably can.
I finished Eileen a little while ago and mulled over what to say. Short listed of the Man Booker Prize 2016, it’s a story about a girl trapped in a dreary life, caring for her alcoholic father at night and working as a secretary in a dead end job in a boys’ prison, during the day. She dreams of breaking free and after meeting the beautiful and smart, Rebecca, is pulled unwittingly into a crime with unexpected consequences.
Eileen is not a girl you can like nor is she a girl with too many redeeming qualities. But she is a girl, who at certain times in our own lives, reflects a tiny teeny bit of ourselves. She has the maturity of a child in the body of a woman, full of uncertainty, yet so seemingly self-aware of every one of her flaws, and there are many. The story drags at times and much of her thoughts and inadequacies become repetitive, so much so, that even if I wanted to like her, her character allows no-one to feel pity.
I admire the author’s ability to get deep inside the head of this character. Except for the contrasting Rebecca, grotesque glimpses of other characters are a mere sideshow to Eileen and an obsession with self. We’re left wondering about Rebecca and whether Eileen in her final act was ever truly empathetic for anyone else. I think not.
Overall, a difficult read but I’m glad I persevered. Did I like it? I can’t say I did, but then everything we read shouldn’t be about entertainment. It took me out of my middle class comfort zone that’s for sure. Well done to the author.