Tag Archives: historical fiction

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.

Book Review: The Swift and the Harrier by Minette Walters

A civil war in England breaks out in 1642 tearing the countryside apart, forcing families and villages to decide whether they support Parliamentarians or the King.

This is a beautifully told tale of a female physician Jayne Swift who is caught up in the war. From a Royalist family, she declares herself neutral prepared to offer her medical knowledge to people who need her from either side. She meets William Harrier who has many mysterious hats raising her curiosity each time their paths cross.

You might think that this is a novel about war but it is much more than that. It’s a novel about a strong and independent woman forging a career while the war rages around her. She’s an unusual character for the era – straight talking, single minded, witty as she is charming and knowledgeable. I suspect that a real- life character such as Jayne might have had many more difficulties in the day. Walters however does a good job in throwing many challenges Jaynes way and we as the reader constantly cheer for her.

As for William Harrier, he is a mystery – a mercenary, a tough fighter, wearing coats of different colours, his true character slowly evolves as does his interest in Jayne.

The medical knowledge and practices were fascinating and no doubt thoroughly researched and the siege of Lyme well conveyed. I’d not read a book about the Civil war before and there was a large focus on the content of battles and the history of both sides.

What I did find interesting is that the relationship between Jayne and William takes a back seat, weaving in and out of the story until the end when the last two chapters provide a quick summary. This surprised me a little as it felt like an information dump.

Having said that, I did enjoy the book, the writing and appreciated the history. It’s easy to read and although long, is very quickly absorbing.

Book Review: The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles

This epic story is mostly about eighteen-year-old Emmett and his eight-year-old brother Billie who set off on a road trip. I  say mostly because these two are the main characters from whom the rest pivot.

Go back in time to June 1954 when Emmett comes home having done his time at a juvenile work farm. His father, dead and his home sold by the bank, all he wants is to pick up his eight-year-old brother Billie, leave town in his beloved Studebaker and head to Texas where he figures there’ll be plenty of opportunity to use his skills as a builder for a growing population.

Billie, however has other ideas as he want to go to California to find their mother who abandoned him as a baby. Finding long lost postcards sent by her, Billie works out that the Lincoln Highway will get them there. Emmett agrees after realising the greater opportunity to build his wealth. What they both don’t figure on is Duchess and Woolly railroading their plans. Having escaped the juvenile work farm, Duchess via trickery and manipulation detour the brothers in the opposite direction to New York where Woolly is to retrieve his $150k inheritance which he is prepared to split.

What ensues is a series of disasters as well as a struggle for survival as Duchess and his erratic behaviour plunge the four into a course that is both comical and tense.

It’s a long book but an easy one to read taking us on a journey not just to New York but also into the minds of the various characters who are at times given their own point of view by the author. Mostly we see Emmett, Billie and Duchess but there are a host of other side characters who I’m not sure added much to the narrative. This is because it was part repetitive, part backstory and part meandering thoughts. Sometimes I enjoyed these asides but for the most part I thought it slowed the story down too much. I wanted to race ahead impatient to know what was to happen next.

Each boy is fundamentally good in their own way but through circumstance or a misguided view of the world have lost their place in it. Billie is the glue holding them all together and  is remarkably insightful for his young years, almost to the point of being scarcely believable. But I took the leap. Billie anchors them with a common sense that belies his years and is at times very touching.

It certainly is a hero’s journey in more ways than you realise, yet the twist in the end is heartbreaking. This one is certainly a memorable one. Check it out.