Tag Archives: books

Book Review: Big Lies in a Small Town by Diane Chamberlain

Pic from Goodreads


The town of Edenton, North Carolina is front and centre of this dual timeline novel and what a surprisingly gripping historical mystery it is.


Morgan Christopher, once an art student is in jail for a crime she didn’t commit, when she is released on bail to restore a post office mural in time for the opening of a gallery in Edenton. She has no training on restoration and has a short deadline to complete it or she faces returning to jail. She sets to work on the mural and as she cleans and restores it, the painting reveals more than she expected.


Anna Dale, a young talented artist wins a contest in 1940 to paint the mural for the Edenton Post Office and we follow her story. Coming from the north near New York, she confronts prejudices and secrets in the small town. She disappears and so does the mural until it turns up in 2018 for Morgan to restore and the questions mount throughout the book until we reach the satisfying climactic end.


The prologue opens with three black children discovering a dead white man setting the scene for a deliciously slow unveiling. I so enjoyed this book, particularly the last half and was unable to put it down. The character development of Anna and Morgan was very well done. The two find themselves and each other with art.


Chamberlain does an amazing job with both timelines and her research into the real town and its history, good and bad,  was very enlightening. Both stories are compelling and heart-breaking fully engaging the reader from start to finish.


You won’t be disappointed reading this one and I’d heartily recommend it.

Book Review: Such A Fun Age by Kelly Reid

 

There’s a lot of hype around this book which can set expectations high.

Emira, a young black woman is a regular babysitter for Briar, a white three-year-old girl whose mother Alix is an affluent white woman. Briar is a talkative and highly inquisitive child with a nervous disposition. Late one night, Alix calls Emira to take Briar out while the police come by to investigate a broken window. Emira thinks about the money she needs and she leaves a party to come and look after the child.  (As an aside, why a three-year-old is not already in bed fast asleep pops into my mind but the nature of this child is explored to kind of explain it.)

Emira takes Briar to a grocery story because the child loves to look at nuts.  A security guard watches them and asks Emira has a young white child. Kelley, a white man happens to film the ensuing altercation.  This event has reverberations for Emira, Alix, Kelley and poor little Briar. 

It is hard to say a lot without giving away spoilers. The underlying issues around race and privilege are central themes as is women’s relationships with each other and the pressure women can place on themselves and on their friends.

Alix is a do-gooder and is genuinely horrified by what happened to Emira at the grocery store. Besides throwing money at her and support to take it further, Alix decides that she really needs Emira not just for babysitting, but as a friend and part of her family. Alix wants to get close, to know her to the point of stalking her babysitter’s texts.


“Alix often felt that Emira saw her as a textbook rich white person… but if Emira would only take a deeper look… Alix fantasized about Emira discovering things about her that shaped what Alix saw as the truest version of herself. Like the fact that one of Alix’s friends was also black. That Alix’s new and favourite shoes were from Payless, and only cost eighteen dollars.”


I had little sympathy for Alix who was completely needy, turning to her girlfriends for advice over the most ridiculous things. Her well-drawn character produced a range of emotions for me. Emira on the other hand just wants to do a job which pays her enough to qualify for health insurance. Well- educated, she is without ambition,  continuously doubting herself. She compares herself to her girlfriends and their own various successes and they don’t  quite understand Emira who’s highlight of the week is to be with Briar who adores her. Alix’s girlfriends are the same. And the relationships are very well handled.


“Sometimes, when she was particularly broke, Emira convinced herself that if she had a real job, a nine-to-five position with benefits and decent pay, then the rest of her life would start to resemble adulthood as well.”


It took a while for me to get into the first half of the book, getting to know characters I didn’t much like. The second half was dynamite with a sinister twist creating a great deal of anxiety about Emira, cheering for her and hoping her response would produce a positive outcome. 

Despite the hype, it’s a quick, easy read and worth checking out. But is it a five star read? Not for me. 

Book Review: City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert


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Nineteen-year-old Vivian Morris arrives in New York to stay with her flamboyant Aunt Peg. Her aunt owns and runs a struggling theatre and, Vivian helps out by designing and sewing the  costumes for her.  Vivian, naïve and in awe of her new life in New York  befriends show girl Celia and together they treat the city and the men in it, as their playground. One night, a drunken Vivian makes a mistake, which results in public scandal and humiliation for her and the theatre. She is ostracised from the world she’s grown to love forcing her to reassess who she is and what kind of person she wants to be. It leads her eventually to the love of her life.


Apart from Vivian Morris and the minor characters along the way, the biggest star of this drama is New York. I loved reading about the world of theatre and show-business and Gilbert has done a masterful job in researching the era of the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, so that we, the reader feel fully immersed.


The book opens with Vivian telling her story to Angela in response to her request about what Vivian was to her father. She replies that all she can tell her is  what Angela’s father meant to her. And so, her story begins. And what a story it is.


It’s an honest portrayal of glamour, sex, fashion, debauchery and decadence. The old Vivian in the story doesn’t portray herself as anything other than stupidly young, frivolous and naïve. She harks back to a time of promiscuity, unwed mothers, homosexuality and where scandal by the tabloids was as ever-present as it is today.


The narration style in first person by Vivian jarred my reading at first and it took a little while to get used to it. It’s a long read and it takes quite a while for Vivian to answer Angela’s initial question, but when she does you get why it’s so long. It was one I couldn’t put down. Enjoyable and enlightening.

Book Review: Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones

I was immediately hooked with the opening line, “My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist.”


James Witherspoon is married to Laverne with a daughter, Chaurisse. He has another wife and daughter of similar age, Dana. This is the daughters story, their loves and their relationship with their father. Dana is well aware of the other family while Chaurisse is not and it makes for some very complicated issues as they grow up not far from one another.


Apart from the themes of complicated families, it weaves in the black woman’s experience during the fifties and sixties contrasting with the teenager’s experience in the eighties. The book is divided into two parts, each told from Dana and Chaurisse point of view. At times, I found that they sounded very similar and perhaps being half – sisters, that was the point. But I had to remind myself who was narrating. I enjoyed the characters of the mothers as well as James who despite what he’s done is portrayed as well as you’d expect from a daughter’s point of view. It was interesting how each girl viewed their father and how the perspective changed the more they found out about him. It was a nice revelation about his character.

 Dana’s mother refused to move on with her life preferring snippets of James’s time and I didn’t quite buy this aspect. Yet the premise that she was married to James, also give an insight into her character and her motivations. 


It was a very easy read, so much so that I finished it within a few days. There were times where I wondered where the tension was, as things ramped up. This one was an enjoyable read, especially during self-isolation and I’m looking forward to reading An American Marriage.

Book Review: No Friend but the Mountain: Writing from Manus Prison by Behrouz Boochani



This is a book every Australian should read. But I warn you that it’s a hard one to get through. It’s confronting and uncomfortable, mostly because each of us will feel complicit in allowing our various governments to treat our refugees so badly.

It’s not meant to be a literary masterpiece, instead the writing is a remarkable stream of consciousness smuggled out by text from Manus Island where Boochani was held prisoner for five years. That in itself is an incredible accomplishment deserving of our time to read and absorb every word.

We, Australians have known it as the Manus Island Regional Processing Centre or the Manus Island Detention Centre and after reading Boochani’s account of what life was like, it’s actually worse than any modern day prison – it’s more like a concentration camp.

Boochani relays everything about his experience, and his observations are insightful and confronting. It’s a commentary of humanity under duress and he paints a painstaking and brutal picture in both narrative and poetry. He and other refugees endured cruelty, hardship and tortuous conditions designed to bring them down. What makes someone want to flee their home and take a hazardous boat trip to a place they hope will give them a better life? It’s only someone truly desperate. Yet these refugees were used as pawns in a political plot from which there was no escape.

“We are hostages – we are being made examples to strike fear into others, to scare people so they won’t come to Australia. What do other people’s plans to come to Australia have to do with me? Why do I have to be punished for what others might do?”

This book is more than a description of what life was like for Boochani. It’s an academic analysis of the Australia’s border system described as systematic torture which he labels as the Kyriarchal System.

“The term Kyriarchy was first used by radical feminist theologian Elizabeth Fiorenza in 1992 to describe intersecting social systems of domination and oppression… the term also captures the way the intersecting systems are perpetually reinforced and replicated. This important aspect connects the prison with Australian colonial history and fundamental factors plaguing Australian society, culture and politics. “

You may agree or disagree with Boochani’s analysis but it’s thought provoking. There are numerous examples cited which breached basic human rights, particularly freedom. Use of the telephone was limited, food sparse, communication with the outside world non-existent, disgusting sanitary conditions, and nothing to do.

“A few people were able to get hold of a permanent marker and draw a backgammon board onto a white plastic table. They began to play, using the lids from water bottles as counters. Almost instantly, a group of officers and plain-clothed guards entered … crossed out the game. They wrote over it in bold letters, “Games Prohibited’.”

It was a very difficult book to read during the time of our own lock-down. Then I read a tweet dated 27 March 2020, saying the following: “the refugees being detained at the Mantra Hotel are not being given any soap. ABF (Australian Border Force) said they can apply for it in writing and would take 14 days to approve. “

Don’t we all put our trust in our governments that they will ensure people will be treated with fairness, respect and dignity? This book tells us not to count on it. 

Book Review: Snakes and Ladders by Angela Williams



This is a story which is raw, brutal and honest. Angela Williams memoir could almost be fictional and you wish that it was.

Angela with university and teaching credentials stepped out to cross a road and was hit by a postie’s motor bike. Police took down her name and a statement and came back two days later with a warrant for her arrest. There was no court case, no bail opportunity, no appeal, just straight to a correctional facility in handcuffs in front of her dismayed partner and young son. Why? She’d served time for a crime she committed when she was a drug addicted teenager, thirteen years earlier. Except she’d only served five months of it. She was taken away to serve the rest.

I’d seen an interview with Angela on the ABC News less than a month or so ago where she talked about her book which had just launched. My curiosity peaked. I had to read it.
Angela pulls no punches. The introduction warns the reader what to expect.

Let’s take something from the old me and jump in with both feet. Let’s hold our breath when we need to, and laugh when we need to, cry when we need to, eat doughnuts when we need to. I’m here, in the future, holding your hand. I promise it all turns out okay… I drove myself mad to tell you this story, so you damn well better read it.

And once you start reading you can’t stop because no matter how much we see of the old Angela, the prison system, the cruelty of her upbringing and enter her old world, we know it turns out okay. That’s what kept me going. That and the writing, which is wonderful.

Acrid panic froths across the back of my tongue. A glint of burning light off chrome catches my eye. I lock onto this shred of bright, body frozen in place. Crickets chirp in the bag hanging from my hand.

Learning about the women in the modern-day prison system, how it runs, life as a sex worker and drug addict was astonishing at times to read, yet eye-opening. Her own personal journey gives hope.

I couldn’t stop myself from questioning power imbalances, was filled with rage at small inequalities and awed into silences by big ones. But I keep trying, trusting, writing, thinking.

I couldn’t help comparing this book to the Mars Room which is fictional and was short listed for the Booker 2018. Snakes and Ladders, I think, is so much better.

Book Review: Magnolias don’t Die by A J Collins

This is the sequel to Oleanders are Poisonous, (see my earlier review https://sckarakaltsas.com/2020/03/06/book-review-oleanders-are-poisonous-by-a-j-collins/). I read this one just as quickly.


We skip ahead two years later when Lauren meets her old friend, Harry in a pub where she’s started singing. He convinces her that she has talent enough to make singing a profession and she escapes the sleazy manager and heads off on the road with Harry. There’s one thing she knows and that is, she wants more than friendship from Harry. Of course, it’s not easy as Lauren battles the demons of her past and especially that night on her sixteenth birthday.

This was as pacey as the prequel and my sympathy for Lauren never altered.  I found myself cheering for her hoping she’d put Harry out of his misery, because Harry is a truly likeable guy. She’s grown up a bit more; is gutsy and feisty while finding a way to learn how to forgive and heal. I enjoyed the relationship with Snap too, although he needed more from her than what she was capable of giving. No spoilers.


I’m not sure how you would go reading this one first, I think it would make sense and it is a longer read. But to enhance the reading experience, I’d recommend these books in sequential order. So, buy them both!