Welcome to my Book Reviews! I don’t include
synopsises synopses a synopsis because they’re everywhere, easy to find. I like to keep the review as short as I can, but sometimes I waffle a bit. Especially if it’s really good. Or really bad not as good.
My last 20 reviews are at the top in the order I read them; every time I finish a new book, the bottom one drops off into the nether. Eventually I get around to re-adding it manually to the alphabetic (by title) list below.
Also, some of the reviews don’t come across quite right from Goodreads – some kind of techno-babble going wrong somewhere. You can always click on the books to be redirected to the original on Goodreads (you don’t need to be a member): then you can access other people’s reviews and the synopsis I left out.
- Review: In Cold Blood
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Shame on me for not reading this sooner! It seems like I’ve raved forever about the effect this book had on true crime and the bravery of Truman Capote in breaking new ground, but never did I think there was anything in it for me now. After all, it’s a fifty-year-old book, and true crime has been done, well, to death.
But Capote’s retelling of the events leading up to and beyond the brutal and senseless murders of the Clutters is nothing short of brilliant. It’s simple yet effective. A warm emotive story of normal life meeting cold violence.
Capote captures mood – this, a snapshot of the cold-blooded drive across county lines to commit this gruesome crime in a part of the country known as ‘out there’:
They skirted the southern rim of the town. No one was abroad at this nearly midnight hour, and nothing was open except a string of desolately brilliant service stations.
And he encapsulates how little we know our friends and neighbours, indeed ourselves, as this quote from a cafe owner shows:
“One old man sitting here that Sunday, he put his finger right on it, the reason nobody can sleep; he said, ‘All we’ve got out here are our friends. There isn’t anything else.’ In a way, that’s the worst part of the crime. What a terrible thing when neighbours can’t look at each other without kind of wondering! Yes, it’s a hard fact to live with, but if they ever do find out who done it, I’m sure it’ll be a bigger surprise than the murders themselves.”
I found myself shaking my head in disbelief at the unlikely behaviours, reactions, and beliefs of some of the people involved, and having to remind myself this is non-fiction. These crazy things actually happened. Like the convenient stupidity of one of the murderers, in not only keeping the shoes that made the bloody footprints, but packaging them up with his name on the box. Or the depth of detail some people remembered. Or the way the townsfolk had their own suspicions (the cafe owner even suspected one of the victims; and the grieving, heart-broken, soul-destroyed boyfriend of another of the victims was an early suspect).
I laughed sardonically at what one of the murderers said when asked why he thought people accepted his bad cheques:
“The secret is: People are dumb.”
This from an idiot who did what he did, for the reasons he did.
I cried when we finally reached the recounting of the killings themselves. I felt the same as the investigator Dewey did – sympathy for Perry, but neither forgiveness nor mercy.
This is a truly incredible book, worthy of its place in history for so many reasons.
- Review: What Happened That Night
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I don’t know why? but this is a book I didn’t expect to like. Yet I was roped in from the prologue: it’s done so well I just couldn’t stop wondering about it: is she jewel thief or event host? Is the hand that touches her shoulder welcome or feared? And I had no idea how it would end until literally the very last line.
It’s a new take on an age-old problem that all too many women can probably identify with: do I love him enough? And is that really my subconscious nagging me, telling me something’s wrong? Or am I just confused and overthinking it?
For me, What Happened That Night isn’t about the realness of setting, nor about vivid surroundings or the vitality of characters. What it gets spot on is emotion. The turmoil and turbulence of the stupid self-doubts that stir our minds. And not just any character’s – it’s Bey who’s the heart and soul, the very point of this story. Everyone pales into shadows next to the intensity of her feelings and passions.
This depiction of love for example:
Being in love – even if the object of her affection was totally unaware of it – was a bewildering yet exciting sensation. Every day, whether she saw him or not, [he] was always in her thoughts. Not necessarily at the front of them – after all, she was working hard on the projects Clara had given her and they needed her concentration – but she was conscious of his existence, of the fact that he was on the planet, that even when she couldn’t see him, he was out there somewhere. She was always alert for the sound of his footsteps on the stairs, or the moment when he might push open the door and say hello. The fact that he was away more than he was in the office didn’t matter. Her happiness was inextricably linked with his presence. Every day she didn’t see him was a crushing blow, but every passing day brought her closer to one when she would.
When I read this, my body tingled. My heart raced. My brain frazzled. I knew exactly what Bey was being set up for next. Because in the instant of reading, I felt it with her, and remembered who made me feel that way and how that ended up. And that’s O’Flanagan’s power.
But it doesn’t stop there. O’Flanagan perfectly conveys the misunderstandings experienced by her characters through internalization. And there is a conversation about projecting self-confidence early in the second half of the book that every woman should read.
But it’s not just for women: this is for any man who wants to understand why women stew and hash up the past:
‘Men can compartmentalise,’ said Eilis. ‘Women are terrible at that. We keep going on and on about things, letting them take over our heads until we’re wrecked. Meanwhile the men aren’t in the slightest bit bothered.’
And I love this snippet from her characters talking about families who date back centuries:
‘All our families date back just as far…It’s just that we haven’t kept track of them…And the only reason these ancient families are so rich is that their ancestors were better at raping and pillaging than ours.’
While some of the turning points are foreseeable, the human reactions are not. In fact the only bad I have to say is that some of the earlier scenes feel contrived – the discovery of the bank statements by Adele for one.
And what I love most of all is the unashamed Irishness and Englishness of it all: none of the names have been simplified into generic names for the US market.
This is a gorgeous read, one that I wish I’d read when I was in my early twenties. My life would have been so much different!
***I received a free copy of this book from Hachette Australia for my honest review***
- Review: See What I Have Done
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Add a new name to the list of the greats, folks: Sarah Schmidt is up there with Joseph Pulitzer, Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe and all the other greats of New Journalism: Schmidt’s compelling version of the infamous Fall River axe murders in See What I Have Done has brought immersive journalism to the printed form.
Schmidt has a way of mixing delicious with foul, overwhelming my senses to the point where I held my breath, held my nose, covered my mouth, anything to stop the smells getting in:
I gave John his jacket from the cupboard, pushed the front door open nice and wide. There was fresh horse manure on the street, sweet hay mixed with boggy dirt and rotting fruit; a waft of the Quequechan River stretching across the city. I hated summer in Fall River, the death smells it brought.
Deliciously refreshing was that I never knew what Schmidt wanted me to think, who she thought may have committed the brutal crime, who was guilty and in what way. She constantly misled me, in much the same way the poor jurors must have been baffled.
Even the house: her early images put me in mind of cool, spacious, airy, light; but by the end it was vividly rotten, filthy, mildewy. Filled with the stink of unwashed bodies, stale urine, flakes of skin and nail clippings, food past its prime.
The conflict in her characters goes beyond simple guilt and innocence. The women all crave life. The men all crave control, destruction. All of them are selfish, self-centred, brimming with ulterior motives, yet too bound by their own sense of morality to enunciate their needs, desires, wants. None of them can be trusted.
The story makes me exceptionally grateful for my life, my times. For indoor plumbing, refrigeration, food quality and availability, for education, social awareness, greater equality, and crime scene control and investigation. For science in all its forms.
If you’ve ever read a book you loved so much you wanted to be inside it, live it, feel it: this is not it. But tough luck, because it will pull you in to an uncomfortable, narrow world, and make you understand motives and everyday compulsions like you never thought possible. And it’s not even particularly gory!
And of course, I can’t go past the cover art. If ever a picture painted a thousand words, it’s this one.
And I see what you have done with the font colours on the cover, Hachette: light on dark, dark on light, leaving ‘ha ha’ in the light font, like Lizzie opening the door to her father – or am I reading too much into it…
- Review: 61 Hours
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
‘Five minutes to three in the afternoon. Exactly sixty-one hours before it happened.’
What, exactly, is ‘it’? I loved the not knowing til the end! Sure, I had ideas from time to time – it was bound to be one of the fourteen crimes on the lawyer’s list. Or maybe all fourteen of them. Or maybe something else entirely. Every time we got an update on the time (which was about once every chapter) I found myself thinking about ‘it’. Such tension!
This is so well written (and yet it’s the 14th in the series) that even though I picked up on one of the major ‘whodunnit’ moments ahead of time, it didn’t spoil a thing.
The style was exceptionally well executed. Child uses a passive, telling voice, often in short sentences. The result is a perfect example of how, when and why such an impersonal style should be used. Sometimes it reflects the (il)legal aspect of the events in a ‘just the facts’ way, like in police or courtroom proceedings:
There were four interview rooms. Each was a windowless concrete cube divided exactly in half by a wall-to-wall desk-height counter with safety glass above. Caged lights burned on the ceiling above the counter. The counter was cast from concrete. The grain of the formwork lumber was still visible in it.
Sometimes his style just ramps up the tension:
Reacher pounded on. One step, and another, and another. The wind pushed back at him. Ice fragments pattered against his coat. All the feeling had gone out of his feet and his hands. The water in his eyes felt like it was freezing solid.
Dead ahead was a bank. It stood alone in a small parking lot. The edge of town. The first building. It had a sign on a tall concrete pillar. Red numbers. Time and temperature. Twenty past one in the morning. Minus thirty degrees.
And as for Reacher himself – what is it that makes him so compelling? So interesting? I guess lovers of action thrillers love the never-ending thrilling action, but some of the magic must lie in the dark and mysterious stranger routine. Who is he? Why is he? And, in a very non-romantic way, will he ever find peace, happiness, love?
I can’t believe it took me so long to discover Jack Reacher, but at least it’s not too late to make up for lost time.
- Review: The War Bride
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I love the delicious complexity of this story: in the opening scenes, Hart conveyed a crucial misunderstanding between returned soldier and war bride directly to the reader: something the characters themselves did not understand.
From there, she developed the characters, allowing my empathy for them both to grow, and rousing my sense of curiosity: when and how will they find out for themselves? How can they possibly incorporate that revelation into their lives? How could they then choose between hurting themselves and hurting others? What is the right thing to do, and for whom?
And while these lives are being lived and torn apart, just to top things off, it seems there were a thousand ways to discriminate: the shame of divorce for a woman but not a man (and worse, those ‘between the cracks’ cases where a woman is neither single nor married, widowed nor divorced: and if that doesn’t make sense, you’ll just have to read it to understand!), the threat of a woman losing her job because a man was always preferable.
But it wasn’t just women’s jobs balanced so precariously – Hart’s male characters have to face the scandal caused by a woman’s divorced status, just for being her boss; or have to accept a promotion with a lot of attached negatives or be fired.
Even child protection gets a look-in: a single man cannot possibly have the skills to look after a female child so let’s just take the child away now.
I was happy to see Hart still has her lovely way of dropping little gems of Aussie-isms (I was stoked to discover ‘Bush Week’ was a real thing!), and it was a sheer pleasure to encounter Tom McBride in a bit more depth. The pace slowed in the middle, but that only served to convey the frustration the characters were feeling, and the ending felt a bit ‘pat’ (but isn’t life often like that too?).
All in all this is a beautiful book and a pleasure to read. I can’t wait for the next one!
- Review: The Hatching
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
From the very beginning, The Hatching took hold of me and refused to let me go, all the way to the final pages.
As a ‘world-ending-disaster’ novel, it has certain rules it must obey: it has to have an ominous prologue, it has to switch from one character to the next and the next, it has to have a lone scientist with just the right links to politicians, and it has to have the classic cop-married-to-his-job-so-his-wife-left-him. Five stars for nailing the genre.
But Ezekiel Boone doesn’t just let his story rest on its ingredients: the story flows. It gets to the point well before its summer-blockbuster movie version usually does.
He breaks a lot of ‘rules’ in exactly the right way – he uses repetition to great effect, sometimes in a droll over-the-top style with a punchline at the end:
Her parents had a lot of money. A ton of money. Private jet money. A building on the American University campus named after them money. What the hell was Julie doing in a lab studying spiders money.
But sparingly – the next extravagant repetition like that was 220 pages later:
But instead of doing his job, Cody Dickinson had smoked twenty dollars’ worth of pot and fallen asleep in his seven-hundred-dollar Herman Miller Aeron chair. He had the cushy office job because he had seniority, and he had seniority because he was sixty and had been a longshoreman for forty-two years, and because he had been working as a longshoreman for forty-two years, he’d worked as a longshoreman when working as a longshoreman actually meant working, which meant his back was wrecked, which was why he had the seven-hundred-dollar Herman Miller Aeron chair, but his back still killed him, and smoking a ton of pot was the only thing that really helped. So he was asleep when the ship ran aground and the impact caused the roof to collapse and kill him where he sat.
Sometimes Boone tells instead of shows:
Delhi. Second most populous city on earth. Including surrounding towns and villages, home to twenty-five million people.
(The implication of that is up to me and my imagination!)
Other times, he doesn’t even do that – he just sets up a scene and walks away from it, lets me do the rest. After all, it’s a disaster in the making – I pretty much know what happens. He just does it in such a way that I’m on the edge of my seat, aghast, horrified, and tense.
Oh and speaking of must-have ingredients for the genre, what of the premise itself? The whole reason the world is ending? It has to have a believable base – like the dinosaur DNA reconstruction of Jurassic Park and the volcano about to blow in Dante’s Peak and, at a stretch, the Mayan calendar predictions in 2012 – and this one is no letdown! No, I’m not giving it away.
And I love that a person’s skin colour was not in the up-front description when we met them – that’s exactly as it should be.
Not once did I stumble over faults in the storyline (there were none). Not once did I roll my eyes in disbelief – in fact my suspension of disbelief was perfect. I even flinched when in real life a few days later, I heard a patient of mine had been bitten by a spider…
Thanks to the inexorable pace, the utter ramping-up of the action, the way events unfolded sooner than I expected, I was sweating, my heart racing, and I didn’t want to stop turning the pages. There is no slow build-up here, waiting for the Hollywood moment and settling into the action – the whole thing is the Hollywood moment. It never slows let alone stops, with short sharp sentences giving way to short sharp chapters.
This is the best I’ve ever read in the genre and I can’t wait to read Skitter!
- Review: The Song of Us
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I meant to pick up this book and read a couple of sample pages before settling in proper. Instead, I fell in love with Barrett’s Tale-of-Two-Cities-esq opening line. Then I found myself intrigued by the possibility that here is a woman daft enough to be caught in a love triangle, yet smart enough to know nothing’s going to change. Before I could wonder what’s holding her back, why she’s still waiting, I’m entranced by the possibility of ‘musical thanatology’ being a real thing. Before I knew it, I’d read the entire story in two sittings!
This is a personable, intimate and captivating journey of love, laughter, music, pain, loss, and joy. While Zoe plays her harp to the dying (a beautiful alternative to emergency sirens and CPR on frail old ribcages), her life changes inexorably around her. She has so many life-changing decisions to face she appears to be frozen, even though her subconscious mind has all her answers:
As I rehearse I am back in the company of June, Kip, Reg, and Clara. I’m with Dad and with Tom and Lex and Vivianne. I’m swimming in the sea. I’m flying around the vineyards. I’m making love to Ross and I am completely free.
Even her conscious mind knows it:
Oh humans, we are so feeble, aren’t we? So silly the way we tie our brain in knots to prevent us from doing the very thing that sets us free.
But as with us all, will she step outside of her comfort zone and be free? Zoe’s not just at a crossroads, she’s at a busy nineways where the traffic lights have failed.
This isn’t a story about people in another league, filled with unrealistic events; it’s about real, everyday happenings, about living life. The story is filled with complex human relationships, none of them perfect, and none with a neatly packaged perfect ending. Barrett seamlessly interweaves music (my own memories of listening to the beautiful Wings’ Let ’em In have now been replaced by Zoe’s experiences, while Beethoven’s Fifth has forever been sullied!) with saving lives and letting lives go when it’s time.
[Life] goes too quickly and the time we spend worrying is too long. I worried about Betty, about my job, about the closeness of my shave and the miles on my car. My mind now…it goes to the strangest places…Tiny little incidental moments: waiting in line at the bank, squeezing oranges, waving the kids off to school, putting my arm around Betty’s hip in the middle of the night. All those moments make up your life. I wish I’d chosen them more, enjoyed them more for what they were.
This is a truly beautiful book, much deeper and way richer than The Secret Recipe for Second Chances but still in the same, easy, companionable style (and set in the same world!). Oh and as for the scene with Sassy and Morrissey? I’m with Tom – is that actually legal?!
I won this book in a Goodreads giveaway – this is my honest review
- Review: Ares Road
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I really like the concept of this book – a mobster with a conscience! And I was privileged enough to be given an Advance Review Copy, for which I am still grateful.
But I found it hard to enjoy.
(without giving anything away): I can see the potential in Weaver’s writing style and he has a fantastic plot: the opening paragraph to chapter 10 is brilliance and the chapter itself flows and reads beautifully. The neighbour has the right mix of caution for Jake and compassion for Logan that makes the scene believable.
The toilet scene in chapter 36 is even better – funny, natural and real.
There are some standout lines of imagery:
– the contents of an old takeout container ‘turning to the dark side’
– ‘a deep voice that made James Earl Jones sound soprano’
– ‘with the massive grace of a drunken toddler’
– ‘Bear returned to the couch and crushed whatever resiliency was left in the old cushions’
– ‘eyes so spread apart he could stand on Wednesday and see both Sundays’.
There was also one good surprise that was brilliantly timed and followed-up.
The novel was the perfect length.
All of these points and more led me to a three-star review.
But now, and I apologise in advance,
Throughout, Ares Road is filled with unnecessary repetition, confused pace, a misunderstanding of grammar and sentence structure, a whole lot of telling-not-showing, questionable motives, and a misuse of precision; all of which pulled me out of the story.
Let me explain by example:
“Well, we gotta find the briefcase now. You’re too young to have dentures.”
“Couldn’t afford them anyway.”
“Do you know what’s in the briefcase?”
“Not a clue. I was hired to get Voleski and the briefcase.”
Three sentences on condo prices followed by a long sentence describing the weather just to drip-feed some backstory is not what I expect to read in the middle of a desperate worry about a missing target, a dead guy, a screaming girl, and sirens: on page one!
Action scenes were often relegated a backseat to a paragraph-long description of a new character’s hair colour, muscle size, age, weight and accent.
Grammar and sentence structure
Sentences jarred from a missing word, often giving the impression an inanimate object was performing a task:
Devaroux’s face bathed in the yellow glow from the afternoon sun
– it’s as though someone said ‘was bathed’ sounded too much like telling, so instead of finding a different way to say it (shone? glowed?) the ‘was’ was dropped instead.
Jake dropped the gun from the kid’s jaw. Henry rubbed the red spot formed from the pistol barrel. Vials spread across the table over Henry’s shoulder.
(After Jake doing the dropping, and Henry doing the rubbing, this reads as the vials doing the spreading of their own volition.)
Commas were missing or added inappropriately, and tenses were mixed up. Subject and object were mixed up.
She marched over to the truck with blue eyes.
A thick aluminum pole set in a flowered rock garden hosted a flapping American flag that reflected from the tinted windows covering the building’s entrance.
(From the context, I think the building is the subject.)
Possibly the most jarring was a fatal misunderstanding of the word ‘conscious’:
“Doesn’t selling poison to the bad guys weigh on his conscious?”
“He’s a United States Senator,” Drabek said, tilting his form toward Jake. “He doesn’t have a conscious anymore. Speaking of conscious, where’s my do-gooder ex-wife?”
The narrative told me about characters, then had them behave at jarring odds: the supposed ice queen, married to her FBI work, who, when we meet her running late for an urgent meeting with her boss, invites a complete stranger to a warm, sit-down conversation in her office, and divulges personal and case information.
The Russian, who goes from snivelling fugitive to suddenly wielding all the power, with all the contacts and the upper hand, even though nothing instigated such an enormous behavioural change.
Logan, whose ‘casual acquaintance’ with Jake had ‘deepened over the past several months over a couple of movies and steak dinners’. It suggests they’re lovers. They behave as equals. We’re told they’re employer and employee.
Why was the screaming girl ever held captive? We’re told right at the end, but it’s an afterthought, not a solid reason.
Misuse of precision
Weaver uses some very precise descriptions of character movements and events, and ‘minutes’ and ‘seconds’ were no exception, mostly used as literally as you’d expect in a suspenseful story; except when he was generic at inappropriate moments.
We go from ‘fifteen seconds ticked off the clock…this thing wouldn’t make it in two minutes’ to:
Jake drained the last of his Pacifico and set the bottle on the table. “(spoiler deleted)”
Bear leaned back in his chair, his lips moving as he tried to get the cogs spinning in his head to line up. He stroked his beard with his massive hands and a minute later thumped his elbows on the table.
That ‘minute’ constitutes some very slow thinking from a character who is actually very bright, very quick.
And finally, the ugly:
I sound picky and anal, and I’m sorry. Everyone else has given four or five star reviews and I nearly gave this a two. But in story-telling, words are all we have, and the issues I’ve raised are constant (hundreds of them at a guess). If every one of them takes me an instant or two to figure out what the writer really meant, then no wonder I had no suspension of disbelief, no empathy for the characters, no interest in the story: I was never given the chance to be immersed.
And that’s a shame, because somewhere under here is a good story that deserves to be told.
- Review: Tex
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is a beautiful story told in a tone of sweet innocence, about that idyllic time in life where nothing ever happens but everything changes forever, that last summer before discovering the harshness of the adult world you’re about to fend for yourself in.
In a perfect example of showing-not-telling, S.E. Hinton uses vivid imagery to portray the world as Tex sees it, allowing us to learn its truths with him. About betrayal and hate:
“You hate a lot of people?” I asked him. The word was taking on a whole new definition for me. Like the word “water” would change for somebody drowning.
He shook his head. “Yeah, I know, I’ll understand it some day. That’s what Bob says. I know this much though, some girl isn’t going to make me forget my best friend.”
I didn’t know what to tell him. I reckon only people who have both been snake-bit can tell each other how it feels.
And about death:
“I’m goin’ for a walk and I’ll take the gun with me. I ain’t going to shoot anything, though. I ain’t going to shoot anything ever again.”
Unusually for its time, it contains a strong female character who, if she doesn’t know her own desires, at least knows what she doesn’t want: her insistence that she and Tex won’t work out reminiscent of Sybylla from Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career.
And of course, it’s a snapshot in time from that period just before the cities swallowed up so many of our small towns, just before they became part of the burbs, each one same as the next. Here, in Tex’s world, they’re still communities. People still ride horses, farm smallholdings, and raise chickens.
This is a gorgeous, heartwarming tale about realisations, awakenings, and awareness of others that, like the blurb on the cover says, is ‘even better than The Outsiders’.
- Review: Her Mother’s Secret
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
If you, like me, thought A Kiss From Mr Fitzgerald was an unbeatably great book, think again: Natasha Lester has beaten it!
Her Mother’s Secret is a stunning love story set in a time of class snobbery, of outright sexism where single mothers are forced to prostitute themselves for their sinful indiscretions, where men promise to resort to ‘uncivilized warfare to subjugate woman’ for having weakened the moral fibre of men through dancing, wearing lipstick, and exposing their ankles, and God forbid any woman thinks she can invent, manage, or lead.
But for all its appparently outdated notions, Her Mother’s Secret could just as easily have been set today: I imagine some muslim women, transgenders, or any other powerless and misunderstood group can relate to the barriers Leo faced all too easily.
Lester’s writing style is so ‘in the present’ that I believed I was Leo. And incredibly, when switching persepectives, I believed I was Alice, too. Sounds crazy, I know, but it was so real. I don’t know that I’ve ever been more immersed!
I shed my first tears when children, in their sweet ignorance, chanted a typically gruesome skipping-rope song:
I had a little bird
Its name was Enza
I opened the window
It made the grief and horror of one of the deadliest natural disasters in history so poignant and tangible.
I admired Lester’s courage in portraying the heavy and indiscriminate smoking of the time, even though it’s an unpopular pastime now.
I also enjoyed the way some characters did unexplainable things – Joan in particular, without giving anything away – don’t we all have friends like that, who drop in and out of our lives, whose motives are weak?
This is a fabulous read, and one I couldn’t possibly do justice to let alone oversell.
Oh and as for the secret? There were so many secrets I wonder if Everyone’s Secrets would be a more appropriate (though decidedly less catchy) title!
Thanks Natasha, for this utterly beautiful, moving and uplifting tale – you have a fan for life!
** Hachette Australia gave me a copy of this book for free – this is my honest review
- Review: My Brilliant Career
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I was astounded at how much this book had to offer and how relevant it still is – from the complexity of Sybylla’s feelings and the urge to take her own life at times, to the joy she feels when her shoulder is bruised by the too-rough touch of a man. Instead of a dry tale, filled with flowery prose and outdated concepts, I read a beautiful, mature, insightful growth into adulthood.
Franklin’s grasp on the human condition – in particular the inequities of females and peasants – is extraordinary. Yet this is not a ‘feminist’ novel, nor is it filled with the anger and self-pity I think I’d be feeling if these conditions were forced upon me: this is a gorgeously honest, darkly comedic, facetious (if not satirical) and soul-searching journey of self-acceptance.
At the time of my departure for Caddagat my father had been negotiating with beer regarding the sale of his manhood; on returning I found that he had completed the bargain, and held a stamped receipt in his miserable appearance and demeanour.
Sybylla is a girl of contradictions. Initially she seems almost as her mother describes her – wilful, stubborn and prone to idleness: so much so that when she is forced to spend some months living in a house of utter squalor, it’s almost easy to think she’s exaggerating (in today’s money though, the poverty she resents is akin to moving into the house from Trainspotting, drugs, excrement, and all), yet she has memorized countless plays, poems, and piano pieces, and is a fine singer.
She bemoans the ignorance of the squalid family – the dirty barefoot half-naked children, the pigs and fowl foraging on the packed earth kitchen floor – and yet envies them for their bliss:
Do not mistake me. I do not for an instant fancy myself above the M’Swats. Quite the reverse; they are much superior to me. Mr M’Swat was upright and clean in his morals, and in his little sphere was as sensible and kind a man as one could wish for. Mrs M’Swat was faithful to him, contented and good-natured, and bore uncomplainingly, year after year, that most cruelly agonizing of human duties – childbirth, and did more for her nation and her Maker than I will ever be noble enough to do.
And in the end, when contemplating whether to marry her sweetheart Harold, her maturity, intelligence, and presence of mind assure her she should not even though he is likely the best match she could ever make:
Under a master-hand I would be harmless; but to this man I would be as a two-edged sword in the hand of a novice – gashing his fingers at every turn, and eventually stabbing his honest heart.
Through it all, our unique Australian landscape is vividly and emotively portrayed. This was, in many ways, the most heartbreaking part of the story because much of this is gone now:
The sun has sunk behind the gum-trees, and the blue evening mists are hanging lazily in the hollows of the hills.
The fish-hole was such a shrub-hidden nook that, though the main road passed within two hundred yards, neither we nor our horses could be seen by the travelers thereon. I lay on the soft moss and leaves and drank deeply of the beauties of nature. The soft rush of the river, the scent of the shrubs, the golden sunset, occasionally the musical clatter of hoofs on the road, the gentle noises of the fishers fishing, the plop, plop of a platypus disporting itself mid stream, came to me as sweetest elixir in my ideal, dream-of-a-poet nook amongst the pink-based, grey-topped, moss-carpeted rocks.
Not to mention the Australianisms! Sayings even we Aussies hardly ever hear anymore:
‘Tame as a clucking hen’
‘It’s a blooming girls’ work’
‘Made a croker of it’
‘Fancy a cove sitting down every morning and evening pulling at a cow’s tits fit to bust himself’
In short, this is a warm, vivid story and one I happily recommend as a reminder of Australia’s lost beauty and still-present poverty. A truly timeless classic.
This book is part of my 2017 Reading Challenge – A Book Published Over 100 Years Ago
- Review: Closing Down
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This book grabbed me, pinned me down, and held me helpless – all in four pages of the saddest opening ever. It was brutal! How could I put it down after that? It would be an injustice to poor Timmy. Not that I wanted to stop anyway!
Abbott’s characters are confused and helpless and lied to, and their struggle to make sense of their lives is brilliantly portrayed. In a mix of trippy hallucinogenic impossibilities and obvious depressing reality, sometimes I understood what was happening while others I was lost. As the front cover suggests, a thing can still be recognizable even when it’s turned upside down.
The closing down of rural Australia, the selling of countries to the highest bidder, and a worldwide crisis of refugees isn’t a time warp to the future: it’s scarily realistic. With ‘just a jump to the left’, Abbott gives us a first-hand view of tomorrow, of faceless organizations conducting meetings and forming committees while we all slide into nothingness together.
But amidst all the doom and gloom, there is love, patience, understanding, and generosity. There are familiar human responses to relationship hurdles and stress – and there’s an underlying dark sense of humour: imagine this excerpt being read by John Cleese or the inimitable John Clarke and you’ll get a taste of what I mean:
The New Horizons Workgroups were under the supervision of the Housing Relocations Management Authority, which was under the administration of the Climate Assets Relocation Program, which was under the jurisdiction of the National Water and Food Security Taskforce, Emergency Bureau One, which in turn reported to the Bureau for Climate Impact Minimisation and Management, which reported, finally, to faceless and nameless shadows in the office of the President of the Republic of Australia, who were known only to themselves and absolutely no-one else, under threat of maximum-security imprisonment in accordance with the Water, Food, Land and Agribusiness Security Protection Legislation, article 74, subclause 126c, as the ERA Committee, which stood, people were told, for the Energising of Rural Australia.
Eventually the inevitable question arises: what do we do when there are more people in a world than that tired and abused world can support? In Soylent Green we ate them, in Torchwood we burnt them, and in Starship Troopers we sent them to interplanetary war: I won’t spoil which one Closing Down adopts but I will share that it’s perfectly believable.
This book feels like the prelude to Mad Max, in a style Stephen Baxter would recognize. It’s a book I hope our leaders read, or better yet, their children, because somehow we need to stop this from happening.
And on that note, let me leave you with one of the news banners for another glimpse of dark humour. Read into it what you will!
Death Toll Rises As Heatwave Continues Across Western Europe; Tornado Smashes New York City And Sea Wall Breached Again In New Jersey With Hundreds Missing; Record Cold Snap Across Southern Australia; Summer Cricket To Return With State-Of-The-Art Indoor Stadiums In Australia And India; Confused About Your Medical Bills? Information Session In Dining Room 2pm Tomorrow; One-Currency Talks Resume; Former First President Of The Greater Americas Loses Appeal Against Death Penalty
** Hachette Australia gave me a copy of this book for free – this is my honest review
- Review: The Soldier’s Wife
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
WWI, the horror of the trenches in Gallipoli, death all around a generation of brave young men: but what was it like for the women left behind? Dreading the postie’s telegrams; struggling to support themselves in a world that didn’t tolerate women thinking for themselves, much less (God forbid!) working in an office – a man’s job, no less; all the time wondering if he’ll live or die? Could life ever be the same again?
These women were often little more than girls, having only just been welcomed to Women’s Only topics such as the blood of childbirth and miscarriage (in those days there was no room for the luxury of ‘playing at adulting’ as I heard a thirty-something refer to herself recently).
Hart has done the times a perfect justice. She deals with sorrow, loneliness, injury, death and, in what might be an allegory for modern times, mental illness. Her power over imagery (‘”Dead.” His voice scraped like a match on stone.’) and her bare simplicity of emotional depths (‘It was easier to care about nothing than it was to face the pain.’) are not a small part of her skills.
People kept talking in clichés…Men have been dying since the world began and there’s nothing new to say.
But Hart has found something new! She conveys the requirement of having-to-break-out-from-your-grief-there’s-a-war-going-on, that belief of going on for others, that others are depending on you even if they’re strangers. Hart lights up old values and conveys the strength and courage of those left behind that I would have thought was beyond words.
From the poignancy of letters from the front (this war, this unprecedented War To End All Wars, will at least mean ‘our boys will grow up safe and happy and whole, with no fear and no cloud over them.’) to the everyday struggle to wash sheets by hand, Hart captures this lost reality. And along the way, she tells the story our great-grandmothers never told us.
They were all trying to help in their own way, she knew. She had to do her part, so she opened the telegram.
Hart has my admiration for going where she went in the climax: I didn’t like the message that such a decision could be a legitimate path to resolution (sorry, no spoilers here!) – but my dislike doesn’t change what’s a very real topic for many, and she handled it perfectly.
This would make a great epic: following the soldier’s wife’s family through to the great-great-grandchildren of today, who didn’t live that history, who don’t know such a war, yet feel a pain they can’t raise themselves out of; their parents equally unable to help.
I received a copy of this book from the author for free – this is my honest review
- Review: Flashman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Ever wonder what happened to the school bully after you graduated?
Or do you hate Political Correctness and wish we could say what we think?
Or maybe you want to know what times were like before PC, what wrongs and atrocities could possibly have meant equality and respect required legislation, as though those basic rights weren’t automatic?
Then this journey into the mind of a bigot, a libertine, and a coward; uncensored and unbowdlerized; is guaranteed to make you cringe.
Sir Harry Paget Flashman first appears in history in Tom Brown’s School Days, where he is expelled from the prestigious Rugby boys’ school and never heard from again in Hughes’s novel.
Enter the mysterious Flashman Papers, bound in oilskin, found in an auction house, and subsequently edited for publication by George MacDonald Fraser where we learn, thanks to Flashman’s place in the world as a landed and monied ‘gentleman’ (read ‘rake’ or ‘debaucher’ or ‘all-round-‘good’-guy-you-hope-you-never-have-the-misfortune-to-meet’), he buys a commission (and respect) in the army.
From then on, and no matter what he does – whether it’s ‘having to rape a woman’ or ‘having to thrash the maid almost to death’ or ‘leaving the niggers outside in the snow to die’ [all his words -not mine] – he gets away with everything. Because in his time, these acts were not criminal! There was nothing to get away with!
He’s so incorrigible, he even commits ungentlemanly acts: he hides from battle, leaves good men to die, and covers up the bravery of others to accept their accolades for himself. As Flashy himself says, ‘give me the shadow anytime, and you can keep the substance’.
Of course, given the times, he’s considered a national hero.
This is an amazing insight into what we, the people, have let our leaders do unchallenged. Fictional though this story is, there’s still many a lesson here.
And as a final word: I doubt there is a better narrator for this than Colin Mace. What an amazing voice!
- Review: A Falling Friend
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I fell in love with this book from the epigraph – it was just the right rhythm and pace, its two short lines touching the human condition, its use filling me with promise.
And that promise was masterfully fulfilled! I honestly identified with the humanity of the characters and adored the writing style – its conversational sentences well-balanced between long, comma-filled rambles and short, snappy statements.
The way Featherstone and Pape introduced the backstory was outstanding and arguably unique: it was well staggered throughout the story and always perfectly appropriate: exactly like learning about a person in real life.
As the story progressed I felt like I was with these two old friends, maybe in a cafe or workplace, as they comfortably talked and laughed and complained and nagged; neither eavesdropping nor qualified to join in; free to interpret their intentions and reactions because I hadn’t known them as long as they knew each other.
The storyline is deceptively simple, appearing to follow none of the usual rules, but it’s a neat trick to push me into investing my empathy with ‘the wrong side’ (no spoilers here, sorry). And then, just when the lives of both girls seem to converge from opposite directions, their lives diverge again, as though at a crossroads, and I found my allegiance had switched to the other side.
Yet when the ‘fall’ gains momentum, becoming obvious in one perspective and remaining oblivious in the other, my beliefs come crashing down again! Ahhh the complexity of social relationships.
And that ending! So daring.
I won this book in a competition run by the authors. These opinions are my honest review.
- Review: Watership Down
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Who can ever judge a classic? How can anything I have to say about it be meaningful? Well forgive me, for I’m going to try.
This story is as much for children and about children’s themes as is Animal Farm: as a cynical look at politics and human greed it’s meant for adults, and I couldn’t (and didn’t want to) avoid that thought as I read.
But it’s still filled with beautiful, evocative scenes:
At this hour the Crixa was all green shade, with red gleams of sun that winked through the moving leaves. The damp grass along the edges of the paths was dotted with spikes of mauve bugle, and the sanicles and yellow archangels flowered thickly.
Although, for all the beauty of such passages, they were less about the rabbits and more about the narrator unloading his personal views:
The sky too was void, with a thin clarity like that of water. In July the still blue, thick as cream, had seemed close above the green trees, but now the blue was high and rare, the sun slipped higher to the west and once there, foretold a touch of frost, sinking slow and big and drowsy, crimson as the rose-hips that covered the briar. As the wind freshened from the south, the red and yellow beech trees rasped together with a brittle sound, harsher than the fluid rustle of earlier days. It was a time of quiet departures, of the sifting away of all that was not staunch against winter.
Many human beings say that they enjoy the winter, but what they really enjoy is feeling proof against it … For rabbits, winter remains what it was for men in the middle ages – hard, but bearable by the resourceful and not altogether without compensations.
And it’s sexist on even the most base level: how complex the female names (Hyzenthlay, Thethuthinnang, Vilthuril, Nelthilta) yet simple the male names (Hazel, Fiver, Bigwig, Strawberry); it was easy to gloss over the female characters by extension. But, those were the times, as recently as that is, and the story is richer for its non-censored, non-Bowdlerized style.
The journey was tough when the narrative voice became preachy, and it wasn’t made any easier by an annoying fictional language (à la Lord of the Rings).
But the rabbits – their needs, wants, feelings, and desires – are portrayed beautifully. And how much their land has changed further in the few short decades since 1972, when human population has increased like, well, like rabbits, is enough to make anyone cry!
- Review: A Wrinkle in Time
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
What a delicious delight, to re-read a classic and find it’s every bit as worthy of its superior place in my memory!
I read A Wrinkle in Time as a part of my 2017 Reading Challenge under the category of ‘A Book From My Childhood’ and found I remembereed none of it. Lucky me, as I got to enjoy it fresh and new!
The opening (‘It was a dark and stormy night’) made me smile with reminiscence – back in 1962 that was sharp, edgy, and new. And I wonder if it’s not the source of our fascination with great opening lines in literature.
The first few pages drew me in with the imagery of that storm: cold floorboards, wind rattling the windows and howling through the open chimney, clouds scudding, shadows racing.
The first chapter deals with the simple backstory up-front, mixing it with the storm, and clearing the way for the plot to advance.
And the ending is succinct and sweet.
This is a quintessential story of good -vs- evil that hints at a struggle fought through the ages and continuing today (one I bet Dan Brown read in his youth!). It’s a truly timeless science fiction story, unmarred by contradictory inventions or understandings in science.
When I first read this, in my innocence and inexperience of youth, I had no suspicion of a sequel, but now it’s as obvious as the day is long and I’m going to have to read the entire quintet!
Where, I wonder, would fantasy, indeed the whole YA genre, be if it wasn’t for Madeleine L’Engle.
- Review: Dreamlander
My rating: 0 of 5 stars
I came into this book with the greatest respect for KM Weiland: I love her beautiful website and she always has worthy advice for writers and writing in general.
Sadly, and despite the great concept, there was nothing in it to grab me, hold me, compel me to turn the pages.
The plot wasn’t complex, but I didn’t have a chance to get to know new characters or follow new concepts before the flow was interrupted: for example, the introduction of multiple characters in a single setting early in the story was filled with detailed description, sudden drama, more new characters, a new language, and inner musings: all in about two pages. It left me with no idea of setting, how many characters I met, or who matched which description.
There were other issues too: the idea that many will die as a result of what happened is obvious yet is explicitly repeated; or the antagonistic relationship between Chris and Allara that took a sudden and unjustified turn towards ‘feelings’.
Even straight-forward actions were confusing at times: “Orias crawled. Orias begged. He had no defense.” I took this literally – he was, after all, in the face of his enemies, and was probably about to die. So to find out half a page later he’s still atop his horse took me out of the story again while I corrected my mental image.
But Dreamlander has countless rave reviews, so perhaps it’s just me – after all I did see that ‘action-stop to internalize-action’ or ‘dialogue-stop to internalize-dialogue’ style similar to other popular stories (Red Queen, The Medoran Chronicles, and The Mapmaker Chronicles to name a few).
My favourite part of the book was a political conversation between Chris and Allara in the library with the oranges – it was nice, natural, and flowing. And I don’t even like politics!
But in the end, after two months of struggling to get to the 40% mark, I found I had no interest in the characters, their problems, or their world. And that’s a shame.
** Note I can’t give a rating to books I abandon
- Review: The Well of Lost Plots
Call me slow, but I’ve just realised how facetious Fforde’s titles are, and it took getting lost in all the plotlines of The Well of Lost Plots to show me! While the overall plot stays the same – Thursday hides in the well until her child is born – the page-by-page plot drifts and weaves and tries its best to lose me. It’s not a bad thing, in fact it’s very well done if you’ll pardon the pun.
I’m also finding that now I’ve relaxed into the characters and the strangeness of this alternate world, I’m free to realize the way Fforde uses JurisFiction as a premise for his commentary on poor plotting, generic plot devices, confused punctuation, repeated words and, (my favourite), the had hads and that thats of a poorly effected ‘spring forward fall back’ device.
And I’ve only got one word to say about the outstanding depth of Fforde’s knowledge (or research): Godot! What a delight.
Ok, maybe I have a few more words to say about this skill… the MC’s announcement of the contenders for the Bookies awards (the annual Bookworld awards) for ‘the best dead person in fiction’:
“First nomination: Count Dracula, […] the supreme Dark Lord himself, father of an entire sub-genre. From his castle in the Carpathians he burst upon the world and darkened shadows for ever. […]
From the undead to the very dead, the second nomination is for a man who returns selflessly from the grave to warn his erstwhile business partner of the terrors which await him if he does not change his ways. All the way from A Christmas Carol – Jacob Marley! […]
[And the third nomination] Banquo’s ghost from Macbeth. A slain friend and bloody revenge are on the menu in this Scottish play of power and obsession in the eleventh century.”
Yes, it’s a wordy book. Yes it’s quirky. But it’s also a hilarious read (or listen, in my case – and Gabrielle Kruger is as amazing as ever). And, special bonus if you’re a grammar nerd, you’re going to love the grammasites!
- Review: The Massacre of Mankind
I know Baxter has a brilliant scientific mind and a vivid writing style, which makes this masterpiece all the more special: where HG Wells set his War of the Worlds in the future, with science yet to prove the assumptions of the day, Baxter has set The Massacre of Mankind in the past: not only do we tell stories completely differently now, we also know the science is incredibly wrong.
Yet somehow, he suspended my disbelief and made this book breathe with life. How tough, to write in a similar style to the original (evidently tremendous!) at the same time as having to believe the sun is made of coal and our solar system is heavily ‘peopled’ by aliens.
Baxter has updated the technology of the time, but only as far as the learnings from the First War would have allowed. He’s maintained the narrative: that fresh-out-of-colonialism arrogance, that certainty-of-class of the time, the voice reminiscent of listening to stories told by our grandfathers: ponderous and detailed, yet almost dispassionate.
So a word of warning: if you want the dramatic action of depressing world-wide destruction, then you should be reading Baxter’s Flood or Moonseed. If you’re after the type of world-wide destruction that’s strangely uplifting and positive, you should be reading his Evolution.
But this book, people, this book is set in 1920 and written from 1939. It’s going to need you to adapt and play your part to enjoy it to the fullest. Our imaginations have to work harder than they’re used to: instead of his usual style of painting a full picture and immersing the reader, Baxter instead describes the picture and makes us fill in the colours.
But it’s worth it! Because then you get to experience the real gem: Baxter’s alternate history. A martian landing in 1907 will of course change history as we know it, but maybe it doesn’t have to be dramatic and sudden: a European war still starts in 1914, but it’s called the ‘Schlieffen’ war and the Americans don’t become involved, thus remaining relatively unskilled at world policing; concentration camps and a ‘lightning war’ are of Martian origin; and a panic still ensues after a radio broadcast of an excerpt from a ‘trashy’ novel, but this time the humans panic is all the more real after experiencing the real thing.
This would make an excellent (tremendous?) conversion to film so long as Hollywood could be trusted not to make it overly flashy. The slow yet inevitable burn is Baxter’s trademark.
172 Hours on the Moon
Bernie and the Putty (Universe Builders 1)
Catherine, Called Birdy
The Collected Minutes of the Bad Mothers’ Meetings
The Drawing of the Three (Dark Tower I)
Everything Bad is Good For You: How Popular Culture is Making us Smarter
The Eyre Affair
Fatty O’Leary’s Dinner Party
Alexander McCall Smith
Friends & Rivals
Great Australian Women
Susanna de Vries
The Green Mile
The Gunslinger (Dark Tower II)
The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse
It’s a Dirty Job
The Kingdom of the Strong
A Kiss From Mr Fitzgerald
Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal
The Last Family in England
Master of Formalities
Me Before You
Middle Age: A Natural History
The Narrow Bed
The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency
Alexander McCall Smith
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
The President’s Wife
The Princess Bride
Abridged by William Goldman
South of Darkness
They’re a Weird Mob
Two Decades Naked
The Undomestic Goddess
What is Left Over, After
Got anything to eat?