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Book Review: Any Ordinary Day by Leigh Sales

I closed the last page and had to go for a walk to clear my head and take in the colour of the day. The brilliance of blue sky contrasted with the red, yellow and green of the falling leaves helped me  contemplate what was in this book. The walk brought me into the ‘now’ of savouring my own ordinary day.

Leigh Sales explores what happens to a person when they’re blindsided by a moment they never see coming. She carefully treads through her own life as a mother, wife and award winning journalist, who you think would be resilient having had to confront other people’s tragedies on a regular basis. But journalists are only human too and she readily confesses to her own blindsided moments.

People like Walter Mikac who suffered tremendously when his wife and two young daughters were gunned down; Stuart Diver, who buried under tons of earth and rubble was unable to save his wife; Juliet Darling whose husband was brutally murdered by his son; the list goes on. Sales talks to each one about their trauma and grief and what they valued most from those around them in their road to recovery.  She talks to detectives, medical personnel, families and friends to learn from them. The discussions are honest and at times raw causing Sales to examine the role of journalists and the media and in particular her own actions in the past of pursuing a story despite the cost for the person who has suffered from a trauma.

I was very interested in the role of support and what it is that gets people through. While  Sale weaves in some scientific theory with facts and figures it’s not heavy handed. It’s matter of fact and down to earth and easy to read. At times, it’s confronting but thought provoking enough for you to learn something, if not be inspired.

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: 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

Book Review: The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Kate Morton

Like Kate Morton’s earlier novel, The Lakehouse, the star of this show is actually another old house. Everyone else are bit players in a complicated history spanning more than a century. As you can imagine, it’s not a short read, nor is it particularly easy to read for a half an hour a night as many readers might want to do. No, this requires you to concentrate and remember each timeline, each character, their backstory and how they fit into the tangled web which the author has cleverly created.

Edward Radcliffe is a wealthy artist who, with a group of other artists and models spend the summer of 1862 at Birchwood Manor. A woman is shot and another is missing and what happens there leaves scars and mystery about for generations to come. Fast forward one hundred and fifty years later and Elodie Winslow finds a sketch pad and a satchel which as an archivist peaks her yearning to know more, especially because for some reason she senses a connection.

There is a labyrinth of information and description which at times frustrated me as it slowed the story down a bit too much for me. There was so much detail, yet when it really counted towards the end there was very little.

This novel is almost like a collection of short stories weaving a thread throughout. Of course it all comes together as you would expect although the story with Elodie had too many coincidences for my liking. I wondered if telling the story from Lucy’s and Lily’s point of view might have been more impactful as well as shorter. I might be controversial but I’ll  throw it out there anyway – I didn’t really see the point to the character of Leonard and his story seemed more of a  filler to me.

Don’t get me wrong, this novel is a beautiful and evocatively written novel.

‘Edward’s portrait of Fanny, the one which she wears the green velvet dress and a heart-shaped emerald on her pale décolletage, was brought in by the Association when they started opening for tourists. It hangs on the wall of the first-floor bedroom, facing the window that overlooks the orchard and the laneway that runs towards the churchyard in the village.’

With a good edit, the story would have moved on a bit faster which is what I was after. But if you love a languorous read to take it all in slowly then you will probably really love it. For me it was enjoyable enough but not the brilliant I was expecting or hoping for.

A Perfect Stone by S.C. Karakaltsas

Why are readers talking about A Perfect Stone?

Is it because  almost 38000 Greek and Macedonian children were forcibly wrenched away from their homes and their families during the Greek Civil War and no-one seems to know about this little slice of history?

A Perfect Stone is a sweeping tale of survival, loss and love.

Eighty-year old Jim’s suppressed memories surface in the most unimaginable way when he finally confronts what happened when, as a ten-year-old boy, he was forced at gunpoint to leave his family and trek barefoot through the mountains to escape the Greek Civil War in 1948.

On sale at .99c on Kindle only until 21 January 2019. Get a copy while you can at this exclusive price.