Tag Archives: historical fiction

Book Review: Still Life by Sarah Winman

Still Life is a highly regarded and acclaimed novel and after reading it, I can see why.

Beginning in the dying moments of the second world war in Italy, Ulysses Temper, a young British soldier meets Evelyn Skinner a middle-aged art historian on the hunt to salvage paintings from the ruins of the war. This establishes the story of mostly, Ulysses his life after the war and the influence on him by this chance meeting.

There is no real plot but the story is full and rich as we navigate the decades. Ulysses is the pivotal star whose gentle and calm nature holds the crew of other characters together. More importantly it is through his eyes that the reader is seduced to fall for him and his life as we voyeuristically involve ourselves in the everyday detail. The supporting characters are terrific with a full kaleidoscope of humour, sadness, good will and genuine friendship. Who could not love the parrot, Claude? Even the writer, E. M. Skinner turns up. But Peggy and her daughter Alys, were difficult characters and for me Alys belied her years so much that it edged on disbelief.

The other main character is of course, the city of Florence. Who could resist a book about a group of friends living in such a place? I was surprised also to learn of the great flood.  It took me back to my own visit there many years ago when the river, far from a raging torrent was a mere trickle when the city was in severe drought. This book made me wonder what it is that makes a city have heart and soul. Is it the food, the people or the art? I think it’s all of that and Winman showcases it beautifully.

Art by some of the masters portrayed women in a less than favourable light and Winman gave us a lesson about the sexism providing a valuable insight for the reader.

Apart from amazing characters, the book is humorous with elements of fantasy, talking trees no less, with themes of homosexuality, single motherhood and war trauma which serves to make the reader more empathic.

The only down side for me was the last section about Evelyn which seemed out of place, repetitive and serving little purpose. I did want to know more about her, what she had done after the war for example but we got very little. I know this chapter has created some controversy and as you can tell, I wasn’t for it.

Apart from that, the writing is sublime, descriptive and evocative of place; the narrative conversational.  Check this one out if you can.

Book Review: Snow Country by Sebastian Faulks.

This novel spans three time periods from 1903 to 1937, and set mostly in Austria. There are two central characters, Anton a journalist and Lena, the daughter of an alcoholic single mother.

The first part centres around Anton as a young man escaping the family sausage business. He goes to university in Vienna with his friend Friedrick and begins his career as a journalist. In 1914, he falls in love with French woman, Delphine whom he lives with happily until he is sent to Paris to cover a trial. War breaks out and he rushes back to Delphine only to find she has disappeared.

Lena’s story is one of poverty and hardship and when she is fifteen, she meets Rudolph in a hospital where she works. Believing that she is in love with him, she moves to Vienna only to find that her love is not reciprocated. 

Then in 1933, Lena takes a menial job at a mental asylum where she meets Anton who is there to write an article exploring whether Austria has lost its status of being at the cutting edge of psychanalysis.

Faulks brilliantly weaves the history of the time throughout the story, taking the reader to such places as the opening of the Panama Canal, which I loved, to the rumblings and rise of Nazism before WW2. We also learn a lot about mental health and how it was dealt with at the time, particularly in the beginning, when women’s issues were regarded as hysteria. And we see the unfolding events from the eyes of these two major characters.

Yet the story is long and drawn out and at times I felt I was taken out of the action by the dumping of a lot of historical information, sometimes a little out of context. As a historical fiction writer, I know how tempting it is to put in everything you’ve researched but I’ve learnt it can also detract. Not that I would ever compare my writing to the wonderful Faulks, but this is how I felt as I read Snow country.

The story of Lena skipped many years without any reference to what she’d done in some of her formative teen years. She had slept with Anton once yet became obsessed by him, forever thinking about him. It seems a little far-fetched belonging the realms of male fantasy perhaps?

At the three-quarter mark my interests began waning, primarily because of the growing implausibility of this very loose plot. We were repeatedly told he was in love with Delphine and still searching for her. And that’s why I just couldn’t buy into the development of Anton’s feelings for Lena and her for him.

Lena reminds Anton of Delphine yet he doesn’t remember actually remember sleeping with her on one occasion years earlier. When he’s told that she’s left the Shloss, he is unsettled, gets drunk and doesn’t know why. Really? I couldn’t be persuaded that he was that dumb.

And the relationship between Rudolph and Lena was unfathomable with no emotional connection. Perhaps he was just using her as a front for respectability? But what was in it for her? Other side characters along the way also seemed like fillers with little purpose.

In summary, the writing is beautiful, the history fascinating but the story line leave a little to be desired.

Book Review: Loveland by Robert Lukins

Photo of a woman reclining in a rowboat on a lake- courtesy of Goodreads

‘Two women stand in the shallows, a man dead at their feet, while around them buildings burn.’

This dual timeline story centres around Casey and her granddaughter May. When May inherits her grandmother’s house in Nebraska, she leaves Australia to sell the house which has sat vacant since 1958. The house is part of an estate set up by the Love family who envisaged a resort on the banks of a lake. May, escaping a controlling and violent husband and a remote teenage son, wonders when she arrives whether her grandmother has given her the opportunity to escape.

The run-down house fronts a stagnant poisoned lake and as May works to put the house on the market, she learns why her grandmother abandoned it for a life with her small daughter in Australia and discovers how their lives interconnect.

This is a beautifully written book and my first by Australian author, Robert Lukins.  He does a superb job drawing out the characters as well as the sinister relationships they deal with. The treatment of abuse by controlling men was sensitively as well as brilliantly portrayed.

I enjoyed the description of the town, the people and the lake. Underneath the welcoming and friendly veneer lies economic and environmental issues which create a running tension pushing us to urge May to stay strong. A trip to the countryside provides a tour guide to the state which although interesting seemed a little out of place.

All in all, this was a very enjoyable read full of tension and great pace. Highly recommend this one.

Book Review: Devotion by Hannah Kent

I’m a huge fan of Hannah Kent having read Burial Rites and The Good People. Devotion is a totally unexpected book.

This is Hanne Nussbaum’s story tracing her life with her twin brother and parents in the Lutheran village of Kay in 1836 Prussia. Hanne is a loner enjoying the company of birds and trees rather than people, until she meets Thea who with her parents moves to the town. Theirs is a frugal life filled with religious teachings until it becomes impossible to worship freely and they with most of the village begin the arduous voyage to freedom in South Australia in 1838.

Essentially this is an obsessional fantasy story of love between Hanne and her friend Thea. They connect on every level to the exclusion almost of everyone else. I was shocked by the twist in the middle of the book which jarred me a little until, like Hanne, I learnt to accept. It was extremely clever as Kent makes the reader feel the emotion and disbelief just as the character would. The reader is just as bewildered and as lost as Hanne is as we come to grips with what has happened. We spend a lot of time inside her head trying to make sense of the changes she faces.

From that point, I felt it began to disintegrate a little. The love for Thea was one sided leaving the rest of her family, in particular, her twin brother behind. I struggled to buy it and the second half of the book just didn’t work in quite the same way as the first half. Hanne’s woe became repetitious and the religious component failed to fully enlighten me about the Lutheran religion. The tension around the suspicions of witchcraft by Thea’s also seemed anticlimactic.

Yet, the writing is sublime as is the description of place.  The reader is brought into the belly of the overcrowded ship, smelling the stifling air, like Hanne does. The South Australian landscape is vivid as are the people. The beginnings of the Hahndorf settlement was also enlightening.

“I found a whaling station that smelled of death and disruption, white men missing teeth, their faces greased mean with hunger for sea pelt, and even through the coastline there was a deep love song of granite submitting to time and weather, I felt uneasy.”

It’s hard not to give away the twist but I wondered why the story couldn’t have continued without it. Perhaps that might have worked a little better to develop the forbidden relationships entwined with the expectation of women of that time. The end was wrapped up neatly yet I was a little bewildered by the where the story took us.  This one didn’t quite work as for me but I am glad I read it and will always read more of Hannah Kent.

Book Review: Warlight by Michael Ondaatje

This book club pick was also recommended by a friend as well as being longlisted for the Booker in 2018.

There are two halves to this book covering two timelines. The first is set in 1945 when fourteen-year-old Nathaniel and his older sister, Rachel are left by their parents in the care of a man they call The Moth. They’re told their parents are going to Asia and a year goes by without a word from them. In the meantime, The Moth encourages and embraces a number of house guests, some of whom the children suspect are criminals, who protect and influence them in various ways. The second half of the book is set when Nathaniel is twenty-eight as he sets about trying to make sense of what happened in his childhood. What an intriguing premise as I settled down to read.

The story is told in first person from Nathaniel’s point of view in a memoir format which served to distance me from the story. And while it’s a fantastic story filled with spies and cold war intrigue, it left me frustrated, with little feeling for any of the characters, many of whom are known only by their nicknames. They meander in and out of Nathaniel’s life as he navigates work in a hotel, learning about and experiencing sex and gambling. These side issues and events had little bearing on the growth of Nathaniel as a person. Nor did it provide any enlightenment about what had happened to his parents.

The second half was better when the grown up Nathaniel searches for answers to bring pieces of his childhood together. His focus centred on his mother and we never learned what really happened to his father. Gaps like this left me frustrated. Perhaps that was the intention of the author – to get the reader to come to their own conclusions.

There are interesting aspects such as the cold war, grey hound racing, the blitz, gathering of intelligence and smuggling. There was a lot of interesting historical context and information which meandered through the novel, which only served to distance me. I never felt close to any of the characters and never connected to them.

Perhaps it’s this style of writing that bothered me. Either way, it wasn’t as enjoyable as I’d hoped or even expected from the blurb. There you have it. It was a disappointment and just wasn’t for me.

The Month that was … March 2022

Autumn in Melbourne is truly beautiful at the moment. So where did those days in March go?

We had enjoyed a short stay in the Yarra Valley with friends. Just an hour away, it is Victoria’s premier wine country destination. We stayed at Meletos which is a little boutique hotel in the middle of the valley surrounded by vineyards and mountains. Highly recommended if you get the chance.

Events : Book Groups

I attended two book groups this month as a guest. The first group did my book, A Perfect Stone. Since I’d written this one four or five years ago, I was nervous that I might have forgotten some of it. After all when a book is done, I don’t tend to revisit it again. Luckily, I was able to handle the multitude of questions. Some even asking how and when I began my writing quest. I was amazed by the interest in what I’ve done so far. Curiosity about the writing process as well as the book itself filled two hours easily. I really had nothing to worry about.

The second group read my recent book, The Good Child. They were equally curious with their energetic discussion about the main characters, Lucille and Quin, what they felt for them, as well as the structure and process of how it had been written. Since this book is set in Victoria some of which is in the late 1980’s it meant even more to this group of readers who were very familiar with the actual events of that time.

I really enjoy attending book groups and am humbled constantly by readers responses.

If you’d like me to attend your book group either in person or virtually, let me know via my contact details.

Reading.

I haven’t read as many books this month but watch out for upcoming reviews during April. If you’ve missed any, check out my previous book reviews.

Writing

I have spent the month refining and working on the plot of my next novel, The Palace Hotel and am wondering if the title is apt. Another title I’m considering is The Barmaid and The Doctor after the two main characters, Ellen and Dana. Perhaps another idea I’m playing with is The Missing Cane Cutter or the Jilted Barmaid. Lots of options but The Palace Hotel is the working title for the moment.

Stay tuned for more on this new historical mystery story set in the cane fields of Far North Queensland.

Until next month…

My Book Anniversary

They say time flies but I had no idea how much until I began to look back to 10 March 2016 when I published my debut novel, Climbing the Coconut Tree.

My writing journey began two years earlier when I was inspired to write a fictionalised account of a double murder which occurred on a little-known place called Ocean Island. You can read more about how it started here.

What is Climbing the Coconut Tree about?

Set in 1948, eighteen-year-old Bluey Guthrie leaves his family in Australia to take the job of a lifetime on a remote island in the Central Pacific. Bill and Isobel, seasoned ex-pats help Bluey fit in to a privileged world of parties, dances and sport.

However, the underbelly of island life soon draws him in. Bluey struggles to understand the horrors left behind after the Japanese occupation, the rising fear of communism, and the appalling conditions of the Native and Chinese workers. All this is overseen by the white colonial power brutalising the land for Phosphate: the new gold.

Isobel has her own demons and watches as Bill battles to keep growing unrest at bay. Drinking and gambling are rife. As racial tensions spill over causing a trail of violence, bloodshed and murder, Bluey is forced to face the most difficult choices of his life.

I’m proud of my debut and in the years since, I’ve written and published three more books.

Out of Nowhere: A collection of short stories published in 2017

A quirky and delightful mix of short stories taking the reader into unexpected territory.

A Perfect Stone published in 2018

A sweeping tale of love and loss, an old man’s suppressed memories resurface after a stroke. He finally confronts what happened when, as a ten-year-old, he was forced at gunpoint to leave his family and trek barefoot through the mountains to escape the Greek Civil War in 1948.

The Good Child published in 2021

Rich in detail and epic in scope, The Good Child is a powerful novel of emotional and financial resilience, loss and unexpected friendship between two women.

So yeah, I guess I’ve been a little busy. No wonder time has flown.