Recently I downloaded a collection of Aussie short stories in an iPad app put out by Sleepers, a small press based in Melbourne. Among the hundreds of...moreRecently I downloaded a collection of Aussie short stories in an iPad app put out by Sleepers, a small press based in Melbourne. Among the hundreds of stories lay the bright shard of Kalinda Ashton‘s short fiction. Its sheer painful brilliance prompted me to hunt down her 2009 debut novel, The Danger Game, which I found in Blue Mountains library.
To say The Danger Game is a “worthy” book sounds lame. But it’s true. It is worthy. It depicts suffering with compassion, doesn’t shy away from the complexities of poverty, drug use, sex, failure and loss; it bravely enacts the tensions of union politics, the under-funding of state schools and the shortcomings of the welfare system. It does all this with glimpses of that same lyrical grace that sang to me in Ashton’s short stories and had me wanting more.
What is didn’t do was grab me by the scruff of the neck and impel me through the narrative.
A charming, mad-cap story by a talented Aussie author.
Love is a Four-Legged Word is a light, fun-filled read. Its quirky characters, an aspiring cele...moreA charming, mad-cap story by a talented Aussie author.
Love is a Four-Legged Word is a light, fun-filled read. Its quirky characters, an aspiring celebrity chef and an uptight lawyer, are brought together when the chef's elderly neighbour dies, leaving her the guardian of an ugly pug who inherits a fortune.
Set on the west coast of the USA, this zany romance reminds me of an old Cary Grant movie - it has the same, light-hearted, feel-good factor. In this story's world, nothing is too serious, despite seeming life-and-death stakes for the "millionaire mutt". It's impossible not to be charmed by the heroine, Maddy, with her bubbly personality and whacky way of seeing the world. Even uptight Tom, the lawyer hero, proves to be just as lovable by the end.
Some readers think the ugly mutt Brutus steals the show, but I disagree. It's Kandy Shepherd's delightful comic voice that makes this story. Kandy's writing persona very much reflects her warmth and humour in real life - it shines through her stories.
I first read Love is a Four-Legged Word years ago, and only recently reread it after the sequel Home is Where the Bark Is, which tells the story of Maddy's model friend Serena. (Also an excellent read.) The sequence doesn't matter: each novel stands well on its own. Kandy's Castaway Bride came out on ebook recently - and I'm not surprised to see it is topping the best-seller lists.
I'm looking forward to more. How about it, Kandy?
(This review was first put up on Amazon in July 2011 and has been slightly revised.)(less)
I read Marching Powder: A True Story of Friendship, Cocaine, and South America's Strangest Jail over one wild, windy weekend, only getting up off the...moreI read Marching Powder: A True Story of Friendship, Cocaine, and South America's Strangest Jail over one wild, windy weekend, only getting up off the couch to eat, say hi to my long-suffering partner and sleep. Then I read the reviews.
Strange, but I agreed with both the 5-star and the 1-star comments. It's a fascinating, page-turning story, told in a simple, easy-to-read style. It has touches of surreal comic brilliance, as it tells of the narrator Thomas's survival through incredible hardships and injustices of his 4-year sentence for drug-trafficking in a Bolivian jail. The first-person narration allows Thomas to gloss over the enormity of his crimes, not only of the original trafficking offence, but his subsequent drug-use and drug-dealing inside the prison, his bribery of prison and court officials, and his bashing of other inmates (described by horrified visitors as torture).
Whereas some readers have seen Thomas's crimes and apparent lack of remorse as a flaw in the story, I see it as a strength of the book's real author, Rusty Young, who allows "Thomas" to speak for himself, to spin his yarns of prison life in a way that is engaging, but not totally believable - Thomas is the archetypal unreliable narrator and readers can judge him for themselves.
Although I missed some contextualising by the "Rusty" character at the end - some hint that we're not meant to swallow Thomas's story uncritically - it wasn't hard to read between the lines. The overall impression I got is that Thomas the person shares the personality profile of many successful criminals: a sociopath - a narcissistic manipulator who charms people and gets them onside, but always manages to see to his own needs; someone who ultimately has very little moral sense of culpability of responsibility for the hideous crimes he's perpetrated against others.
Far from being a weakness, I see this narrative choice as one of the story's strengths. But because of Thomas's unreliability, I'm not so sure the book should be characterised as "non-fiction" or "biography".
(This review first appeared on Amazon in July 2011 where I was able to include hotlinks that don't appear here.)(less)
Australian author Christine Stinson's first novel was the marvellously witty and engaging, Getting Even with Fran. That story celebrates the complexit...moreAustralian author Christine Stinson's first novel was the marvellously witty and engaging, Getting Even with Fran. That story celebrates the complexity of life-long friendships, centering around a thirty-year Catholic girl's school reunion. After such a debut, Stinson's second novel, It Takes a Village, comes as a surprise.
Told from the point of view of a young orphaned girl being brought up by her shell-shocked grandfather, It Takes a Village doesn't have the biting humour of Getting Even with Fran. Rather, it weaves a gentle spell around the lives of the various characters who populate a poor suburb in Sydney in the 1950s and early 60s.
In this fictional memoir, Stinson deftly creates a portrait of an Australian way of life long gone. With strict morals and, at times, narrow-minded attitudes, this life also created a sense of compassion and community that contemporary suburban life rarely offers. Having read the story in manuscript, as well as the finished novel, I kept hearing echoes of the sayings and expressions of people from my own Australian childhood, those ancient great-aunts and their companions who have long since passed away.
Although It Takes a Village touches on some serious social questions, including the aftermath of the deployment of United States army personnel in war-time Sydney, it doesn't attempt to provide serious social commentary. Instead it achieves a moving as well as feel-good atmosphere which reminded me of the novels of Maeve Binchey.
Given that the second novel was such a contrast to the first, I've been fascinated to watch Stinson approach the writing of her third, yet to be published, novel Epiphany (working title). Set in the Blue Mountains, Epiphany revisits the "group of friends" theme, and again conveys the complexity of relationships among contemporary Australian women, this time with the added international flavour of having one of the main characters a leading conductor. The story builds on a deeply moving emotional dilemma which touches many Australian women in their late thirties-early forties juggling motherhood and career, and promises to be ranked among the best contemporary mainstream Australian women's fiction when it appears.
(This review appeared in Amazon in July 2011 and has been revised)(less)
What could go wrong for four thirty-something girlfriends planning a weekend away from husbands and kids in the remote Australian countryside? Plenty!...moreWhat could go wrong for four thirty-something girlfriends planning a weekend away from husbands and kids in the remote Australian countryside? Plenty! Walking the knife-edge between caution and paranoia, Ford's heroine, Jodie, appears gutsy and damaged by turns. Is she right and there's something seriously creepy about the visitors who turn up at their remote holiday house? Or has the trauma of her past finally caught up with her?
Beyond Fear is a book that grabbed me from the first page and never let me go. Even though I'd read it in manuscript, once the book was published and in my hands, out went the cooking and the housework. Luckily I had time off work and could devour it in one sitting. Everyone I've spoken to who has read it has literally not been able to put it down.
According to the Jaye, the story was inspired by the real-life stabbing of a teenage girl who witnessed her best friend's rape and murder before being left for dead. The story's premise begins with the scenario - how would such a woman react years later when confronted by another potentially violent situation? Would she cave or cope?
As a dedicated fan of psychological thrillers from Nicci French and others, I loved the fast pace and all-too-human characters of this page-turning novel. An incredible debut for first-time author, Jaye Ford - hopefully it's the beginnings of many great reads to come.
Jaye's second book, Scared Yet?, is due out in Australia in March next year.(less)
NB: (August 2012) This story has been re-edited and updated since I read it (see author's comments below), so the criticisms below may no longer apply...moreNB: (August 2012) This story has been re-edited and updated since I read it (see author's comments below), so the criticisms below may no longer apply.
The Crushers had all the makings of an excellent read. Set in the Blue Mountains national park of Three Sisters fame, it starts with an intriguing murder mystery premise. I loved the very Australian setting.
The author was given some support for the development of her manuscript via an Emerging Writers Grant and Varuna, but the resulting novel (self-published?) shows all the signs of having been poorly edited. The copy I downloaded (and didn't pay much for admittedly) was full of typographic and proofreading errors (such as different fonts and things going bold). I'd have overlooked these if the story itself hung together. It didn't. There are structural problems toward the end that really should be addressed.
My recommendation to this author is to take it down and pay a freelance editor to give it a once-over. The Crushers has the makings of a classic Aussie story, but it's not there yet.
3 stars for encouragement. I hope to see more from this author.
I loved this book. I hadn't read a Harlequin Mills & Boon (except those written by friends) for a very long time when I won three books, Nina Harr...moreI loved this book. I hadn't read a Harlequin Mills & Boon (except those written by friends) for a very long time when I won three books, Nina Harrington's story among them. I'm pretty sure this was Harrington's breakthrough novel to get published in this field. Such books are always great to analyse for craft as the authors have usually spent many years honing their manuscript and their skills. (Later books sometimes disappoint as the authors don't have the luxury of a single focus, and they're often working to deadlines.)
Harrington's humour is what stood out for me. And her command of the romance conventions. The conventions are all there - along with the hero's name, Jared Shaw - but they are deftly handled. Harrington drew me into the story in a way that enable me to suspend my knowledge that the hero and heroine would get together in the end. The story touches on a core emotional issue that I didn't think I'd see handled in romance. No spoilers here, but I'm amazed Harrington manages to sustain sympathy for her hero, touching on more than one issue that, in real life, are crucial to many women, myself included. There's a wealth of pain in the unwritten story, the one without a happy ending.
For students of romance, I'd highly recommend this book as a great example of the craft.(less)