Seventeen-year-old Zoe Kennett disappeared of the Tasmanian coast. Although presumed drowned by most of her family, her mother, Eva, believes Zoe is sSeventeen-year-old Zoe Kennett disappeared of the Tasmanian coast. Although presumed drowned by most of her family, her mother, Eva, believes Zoe is still alive and will return from the sea. Detective Inspector Tony Vincent arrives at this isolated by idyllic place to lead a search, but finds himself believing there's more to this disappearance than a crime or drowning. That old superstitions and myths may be more real than the story of a tragic drowning…
I wanted to like this so much more than I did. It had all the ingredients to appeal directly to me: a Tasmanian setting, an intriguing mystery, a story that drew on Irish mythology and history, a focus on wild, windswept shores. It was also well rated on GoodReads, recommended by the woman who sold me the book and has a drop-dead gorgeous cover. I thought I was in for a great read.
Instead, To The Sea was almost completely frustrating to read. To begin with, there's simply too many characters. This book needed to be published with a family tree in the front matter because otherwise it's just impossible to keep track of who everyone is. I had to keep flipping back to work out the basic relationships. Oh, Tom isn't Eva's father, but her grandfather, and so on. The killer is that there simply didn't need to be that many characters – of the seventeen-member family, only five of them actually do anything significant to the story.
The story is also weighed down by exposition. The novel opens like a mystery novel, we're given the basic gist of things, we have a simple but tragic explanation complicated and made sinister… the book even structures itself around the days of Zoe's disappearance, and Day One is all focused on what's happening. Then we get to the second day, and suddenly, the novel is screeching to a halt to go over the background of Eva and John. You can expect any mystery to explore the past – but a good mystery doesn't just suddenly stop after just starting, particularly when the past explored is largely irrelevant to events. I found myself eye-rolling each time a little bit of movement in the plot would be met with more chapters of background exposition.
To the Sea is Christine Dibley's first book and it feels like it. The writing feels clumsy, sometimes focused on unnecessary details, awkwardly worded and I don't really know what that ending was about. Dibley does show promise – there is a lot of intriguing ideas here and the story she created was a compulsive read.
The Writer's Room is a collection of long-form interviews with Australian and New Zealand authors, conducted by Australian author Charlotte Wood. ThesThe Writer's Room is a collection of long-form interviews with Australian and New Zealand authors, conducted by Australian author Charlotte Wood. These are all fascinating and inspiring, giving insight into each author's thought and work processes – though I was a bit surprised and hurt at some of the negative opinions of historical fiction! All up, a great resource – easily one to recommend to readers and writers.
As a final note, I want to say bravo to Wood for this:
In Australia there seems to be this continuous anxiety, manifesting in the question, 'What is Aust-ralian literature?' But as a writer, I basically couldn't give a sh*t.
Frankie Desmarchelliers has moved her family to the quiet, cosy community on Green Valley Avenue in efforts to save her marriage. Next door to her isFrankie Desmarchelliers has moved her family to the quiet, cosy community on Green Valley Avenue in efforts to save her marriage. Next door to her is Gwen Hill, still reeling from the death of her neighbour and the decision to sell the house. The two new neighbours are set for confrontation when Frankie decides she needs to fence off the front yard and Gwen, unable to face change or compromise, sees this an act of desecration and war.
The worst thing about The Fence is that none of the characters are sympathetic or even likeable. Frankie, perhaps, is most sympathetic at the beginning of the novel, but as the novel goes on, her behaviour becomes more and more extreme and illogical. Gwen, within the opening pages, comes across as an old biddy who loathes change and the world not falling into her perfectly delineated plans. Gwen's husband Eric is probably the most likeable character overall, but Frankie's husband Brandon is just a waste of space. Author Meredith Jaffe seems to keep on insisting on him being the victim of a vicious, hen-pecking wife which only made me hate him.
The conflict is petty, but compelling. It may feel unrealistic and overblown, but I have no doubt that such conflicts exist between some neighbours. The behaviour of all parties going into is vindictive, based on miscommunication, misunderstandings and poor knowledge. It certainly doesn't improve the characters in my eyes, but at least it's interesting.
I actually didn't like the conclusion to the piece. While Frankie and Gwen seem to reach some sort of understanding between them, the arrival of another lot of new neighbours and a new conflict brewing over the fence, it makes me wonder if this is just a new cycle that the characters will navigate with more wisdom or if they learnt anything from their experience. If it's the latter, that's just frustrating – what's the point of the story if the characters don't grow as a result of it?
Additionally, Frankie's own ending left be feeling conflicted and disturbed by some of the connotations that could be read into it.
The Fence is compelling entertainment, albeit populated with unlikable figures and an unsatisfying ending.
Disclaimer: I received a free copy for review from the publishers via Netgalley....more
Jimmy Flick isn't like other kids. He's not like normal kids. He's difficult to handle, going too fast or too slow. The only person who can manage himJimmy Flick isn't like other kids. He's not like normal kids. He's difficult to handle, going too fast or too slow. The only person who can manage him in a harsh, poor environment is his mother, Paula. But one day, everything changes and his world is left in tatters.
The Eye of the Sheep won last year's Miles Franklin Award, which was pretty much why I was curious to pick this up. I wasn't excited by the synopsis or the original cover but I am so glad that I took a punt because this was a book that enthralled me.
The novel is told entirely through Jimmy's point-of-view. It's difficult to write in the POV of a child, even more so a child who is disabled in some way (Laguna never makes it clear why Jimmy isn't like other kids, there is no moment or mention of diagnosis). However, Laguna pulled this off spectacularly. I ended up being annoyed by Jack in Emma Donoghue's Room, but I loved Jimmy from start to finish and my heart broke repeatedly for him.
The characters around him, though flawed – sometimes deeply so – were all depicted sympathetically. Laguna never lets us forget their ugliness or weaknesses, but she also shines a light onto their good qualities and lets us see how others could love them.
Sofie Laguna created a world that stayed with me for some time. I keep wanting to re-enter that world (alas, the pile of books owned but unread prevents me from doing a lot of rereading). This is a beautiful and heartbreaking read....more
Egypt in the Age of the Pyramids is a book that contains a couple of essays about the Old Kingdom in Ancient Egypt and a partial (?) catalogue of itemEgypt in the Age of the Pyramids is a book that contains a couple of essays about the Old Kingdom in Ancient Egypt and a partial (?) catalogue of items on display at an exhibition by Boston's The Museum of Fine Arts. The essays are decent, but aren't ground-breaking or insightful – introductions to the time period more than anything. The catalogue is interesting too, as it's great to get information and photograph of these items, but it isn't necessarily enthralling....more
Eager to get away from their abusive, shell-shocked father, Tommy and Kip eagerly explore their property. The cave they dub "Kubla" is perfect for thaEager to get away from their abusive, shell-shocked father, Tommy and Kip eagerly explore their property. The cave they dub "Kubla" is perfect for that – magnificent and previously untouched, a short walk from their home and the ideal hiding place. That is until Tommy is caught in a cave-in. Kip, terrified of his father, cannot tell the truth, and Tommy is never found. Fifty years on, Kip returns to the farm and sets out to uncover the truth at long last.
The Better Son was a griping, solid read. I found it engaging enough to read quickly, eager to return to the world and the relationships Katherine Johnson created, and to discover what had happened.
The characters are well-developed, intriguing and sympathetic, and their relationships feel real and true to life. I was especially fond of the relationship between Kip and his mother, Jess. Having read the blurb, I thought Kip's reasons for not telling seemed a bit weak, but the actual scenes themselves sold me completely on Kip's fear and his reason for lying.
The only character I didn't really gel with was Harold, the abusive father and World War II veteran. At first, he is a despicable figure, with the war used to explain away his wickedness, but as the book progresses, it felt as though Johnson was just hitting him the villain-stick too much that he verges towards being an overblown caricature.
Oddly, I didn't seem to connect as much to the older, 50+ year old Kip, as much as I did the younger version. It's possible that was because we didn't have much time with him, comparatively speaking, or maybe because there was a big chunk of missing history for the adult version.
The story is well written, but there were a few moments that felt awkward. There's the summary of Kip's career successes, which felt a bit too expositional and had me wondering if it was just a bit of optimistic story-telling. Johnson seems to enjoy piling images upon images which just come across as awkward, for example: "…and looks again into the cave mouth's grin, filled with pointed rocks that resemble jagged teeth" (p. 3). It's not often enough to be distractingly apparent, but it was noticeable and did detract from Johnson's otherwise confident writing.
A good, solid read, full of promise. 3.5 stars....more
In Australia's red centre, a woman is haunted by crows and driven mad by the seizure of her daughter. Ivy, the daughter, endures life at a Christian mIn Australia's red centre, a woman is haunted by crows and driven mad by the seizure of her daughter. Ivy, the daughter, endures life at a Christian mission and is ultimately incarcerated in a mental hospital after her own daughter, Mary, is taken from her. Mary begins to work in the Aboriginal Coalition after discovering her heritage and returns to the mission that was at the centre of her mother's and grandmother's suffering. Here, Aboriginal spirituality clashes with colonial ruthlessness, and mythology mixes with reality.
Alexis Wright's Plains of Promise was a hard read. The subject matter is very dark and sad, illuminated by the stark brutality that Wright invokes. The writing style does not make for an easy, flowing read and I did find it hard going at first.
However, I am sorry to finish this book and there are a lot of strengths there. It is brilliantly creepy with the images it invokes and though much is explained, somethings are not. The prose is stunning at times – the final three pages were my highlight for what they invoked and revealed. ...more
It is 1921. Jessie has killed her husband and has fled into the bush. Like the bushrangers of the previous century, she is a capable horsewoman and adIt is 1921. Jessie has killed her husband and has fled into the bush. Like the bushrangers of the previous century, she is a capable horsewoman and adroit at surviving in the Australian wilderness. But she is a wanted woman and Jack Brown has been hired by the local constable to track her down.
It's difficult to know how much of Courtney Collin's novel, The Burial, is based on history. Collins talks about the story as inspired by Jessie Hickman, the "lady bushranger" and I assume she means that the story is not a straight-forward novelisation of Hickman's life, but a loose interpretation of it. But, to be perfectly honest, I don't really care.
The Burial is an amazing book. It is perhaps experimental in its use of POV, which may turn a reader off. However, I loved it – it added a sense of poetry to the novel that rendered it haunting, gothic and almost dream-like....more
The Well tells of Hester and Katherine who run over a mysterious creature. They dump the body in the well and appear to get away with it. However, KatThe Well tells of Hester and Katherine who run over a mysterious creature. They dump the body in the well and appear to get away with it. However, Katherine is drawn back to the well and begins to tell Hester that she can hear a voice, that the creature is a man who is alive and wants to come out.
The Well centres on a few intriguing premises – what did Hester and Katherine run over? Is Katherine telling the truth about the voice in the well? How will Hester and Katherine grow apart in light of this incident? The story even intriguingly ends by circling back to the start of the novel…
It's a very intriguing read, but, unfortunately, not what that I found enjoyable. I found myself a little bit muddled by the loose handling of time. We begin the novel right at the start of the car accident, before going back to the events and backstory leading up to this, which are peppered with Hester's recollections of her childhood, then we re-experience the accident, moving forward with the plot only to circle back to the start of the novel and another recollection of the crash.
The characters are at times sympathetic, but also frustrating. I found Hester selfish, obsessive, foolish and cruel. Katherine was a very silly person who I thought was a complete waste of space and needed to shut the hell up. The supporting characters don't fare any better.
While I do like the uncertainty about what they ran over (man/beast) and whether it's alive or dead, it just didn't feel well done. I have a feeling that the novel was supposed to make the reader question what is real, to see themes and allegories, but I needed a little bit more clarity or, more importantly, meaning for it to work.
An exciting premise, but a frustrating read....more
Loren Wynne-Estes disappears on a cruise that represents a last-ditch effort to save her marriage. As the adoring mother of two twin girls, she looksLoren Wynne-Estes disappears on a cruise that represents a last-ditch effort to save her marriage. As the adoring mother of two twin girls, she looks an unlikely candidate for suicide and there is just enough doubt to make the situation begin to look like her husband murdered her. But what really happened to Loren?
Billed as a psychological thriller along the lines of Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, Caroline Overington's The One That Got Away is a disappointment, lacking all their finesse, intrigue and well-developed characters.
Overington's writing felt juvenile, flat and uninteresting. The plot was dull and the characters, rather than feeling real and vivid, felt a calculated effort from Overington. The reactions of Loren's step-sister and father felt like a shrill hysteria. Yes, they should and would be hysterical in those circumstances, but it felt over the top and shrill and ultimately unpleasant.
The choice to present the story from the POV of two characters we don't normally see – the journalist interviewing the family and the judge presiding at the trial – was interesting but it felt strange as they were never invested in the case.
In the future, climate change has ravaged the earth and Aborigines are still living under the government's Intervention scheme in the north, a schemeIn the future, climate change has ravaged the earth and Aborigines are still living under the government's Intervention scheme in the north, a scheme that promises to "close the gap" but only enlarges it. The mute Oblivia Ethylene is unwanted in her swampy home, but forms a bond with thousands of black swans. However, she is thrust out of this world by Warren Finch, Australia's first indigenous president, who takes her as his wife and imprisons her.
Half dystopia, half fairy tale and awash with powerful imagery, The Swan Book is far from an easy read. It was hard going, not only due to the topics Alexis Wright unapologetically focuses on, but also due to the way Wright has crafted and written this story. It is easy to be lost, to struggle to be drawn into this world and keep going.
I had this sensation with Plains of Promise, Wright's first novel. It was a struggle to read, as this was, but in the end, I could not help but be moved by the emotions and stories Wright captures. The same is true with The Swan Book, though it lacks the precise, devastating climax that Plains of Promise did. ...more
Kate has grown up on a stretch of the lonely Australian cape, the daughter of a lighthouse keeper. Until recently, Kate has shared and done everythingKate has grown up on a stretch of the lonely Australian cape, the daughter of a lighthouse keeper. Until recently, Kate has shared and done everything with her best friend, Hannah. But as the girls grow older and new faces enter their world, things change and reach fever pitch. One moment will change everything for them.
Inspired by a true story, Skylarking by Kate Mildenhall is a haunting novel that kept me spellbound from start to finish. Kate Mildenhall depicts the events gently, but with an underlying tension leading the reader on and on until the climax.
The characters, especially Kate, are well developed, sympathetic and their struggles well documented. The setting is well-depicted and lingers in the mind, this isolated stretch of coast where danger lurks.
Melissa Ashley traces the life of Elizabeth Gould in The Birdman's Wife, retelling the story of the artist and wife who produced studies of birds forMelissa Ashley traces the life of Elizabeth Gould in The Birdman's Wife, retelling the story of the artist and wife who produced studies of birds for her husband, John Gould the famous ornithologist and zoologist, in his monographs that contained ground-breaking research into birdlife, especially from Australia.
This is an exquisitely beautiful book. After receiving an ebook copy from NetGalley, I found myself drawn to the hardback edition with that stunning cover. I picked up the book to flick through and found myself amazed at the endpapers, where, like jewels, various artworks connected to Elizabeth Gould are displayed. The final treasure was peeling off the dustjacket and seeing what decorated the underneath, it was peeking through the hole into a gold-filled tomb. The book is just exquisite.
I wish I could say the same for the content of its pages. I wanted to rave about The Birdman's Wife as much as I raved about the cover and design – but I can't. It's not that the book is atrocious, it's just that it's not very good and certainly not as magical as the cover design.
There are technical issues with the novel, with an overabundance of information dumps. Every aspect must be described in detail – it's clumsy exposition, sometimes unnecessary and often leads to a sense of a series of connected explanations. Additionally, while I do appreciate Melissa Ashley's decision to use the place names that Elizabeth Gould would've used herself, Ashley needed to situate the location a little more. When the Goulds arrived in Hobarton, I wondered if they were arriving in what is now known as Hobart, Tasmania, or if they were arriving in some place with a similar name.
Each chapter is given a subheading which provides time and date, which was handy because sometimes there was significant time jumps between chapters that the text itself didn't signpost clearly, so I could flick back, see how much time has passed and what progressions could have been made.
The thing I keep coming back to, though, is that there was no spark in it. There was nothing that really made me feel like, wow, that's a great shift in the dynamics, let's see how it progresses. Elizabeth Gould just seems to go along with the status quo. I was desperately looking for something that changed things up. Some form of conflict that had repercussions. And it just wasn't there.
Sure, there are superficial movements. Elizabeth falls in love, she marries, she has children, she has success. There are even literal movements, as the story moves from England to Australia and back again. But there's no real change. The characters are unchanged, they never grow. There's no real difference between the Elizabeth at the beginning of the book and at the end, despite gaining a husband, children and success.
Instead, The Birdman's Wife is just a recount of Elizabeth Gould's life. It's not really the story of Elizabeth Gould. It is clear that author Melissa Ashley is enamoured of her subject and has done a lot of research, which is admirable. The problem is that the book lacks conflict, movement and ultimately disappoints.
Disclaimer: I received a free copy for review from the publishers via NetGalley. ...more
A troubling letter from her grandfather and relationship problems with her fiancé see Lucy Briar returning home to Australia for the first time in yeaA troubling letter from her grandfather and relationship problems with her fiancé see Lucy Briar returning home to Australia for the first time in years since she fled to London. But soon after her arrival, she finds her grandfather dead and her father rapidly spiralling downwards. Urged by her father to pack up her grandfather's crumbling guesthouse, Lucy is drawn on by the secrets within its walls.
Beyond the Orchard was something I was itching to read, having just devoured Anna Romer's second novel, Lyrebird Hill, and finding it a serious improvement on her first, Thornwood House. Yet something didn't quite work.
Don't get me wrong, Beyond the Orchard was a thrilling read that had me glued to its pages and eager to find out what really went on at Bitterwood. The characters were interesting; the setting intriguing; the mystery fascinating.
I'm tempted to blame it on the ARC I read, with the sometimes-broken formatting. But I don't think so - the errors weren't that bad or that frequent and I've gotten over worse formatting errors to fall in love with a book. My main issue, I think, is that there was too much going on. A multitude of mysteries, an overabundance of POV characters with complex relationships, an excess of issues – it's very easy to get swamped, to fail to see what issues matter, how the characters all link up and what clues belong to which mysteries…
The story worked best for me when it focused on Lucy trying to uncover the mystery of Bitterwood in 1993 and the flashbacks to Bitterwood around 1930. This is where the heart of the story lay and when the novel focused on it, it came alive. The romance subplots felt tacked on, the fairy tales added a nice layer of intrigue to the piece but ultimately left me confused to their point. It was hard to connect with anyone but Lucy because we didn't see enough of them.
Beyond the Orchard also lacked an immediacy. There was no real danger to the characters, no threat to render the mystery unsolvable. It even seems to rely on clichés at certain points – the knowledge holder to promises to pass on secrets only to die before he can, the mysterious parcel of answers waiting to be found… There are even times where Romer seems to construct obstacles where there's no need for them, except to string the story out further. Case in point, there are two characters that Lucy goes to for information, they block her, she waits a bit and tries again and they immediately give in and tell her what she wants to know.
But despite all of this, Beyond the Orchard was a deeply enjoyable read. The mystery was compelling and I enjoyed spending time in the world.
Disclaimer: A free copy was provided by the publishers via Netgalley for review....more