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)
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)
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)
Extract: "For the novel’s strengths, I look to the narrator Bethia, the portrayal of early settlement life in America, the previously unknown (to me)...moreExtract: "For the novel’s strengths, I look to the narrator Bethia, the portrayal of early settlement life in America, the previously unknown (to me) story of the first indigenous scholar of Harvard University, the tensions between Bethia’s book-loving character and her role as a woman growing up under a religious patriarchy, as well as Brooks’ depiction of the devastation brought to the Wopanaak tribe of Noepe (now Martha’s Vineyard) of European settlement. In terms of my enjoyment of the story, these strengths fairly weigh against the book’s weaknesses."
Full review, including discussion of Brooks' popularity in relation to that of other Australian women writers here: Devoted Eclectic
I can count on one hand the number of Chick Lit or contemporary women's fiction I've read that hasn't been written by friends, so I wasn't sure what t...moreI can count on one hand the number of Chick Lit or contemporary women's fiction I've read that hasn't been written by friends, so I wasn't sure what to expect from this novel. That said, I found myself quickly swept up into the world Heidke created and caring about her characters' fates.
Although it is ostensibly Stella's story, it is actually an ensemble piece, tracking the lives of Stella, her friends and their families. While Stella is the most well adjusted - despite being faced with, initially, the most fraught family circumstances - her friends Carly and Jesse, and Jesse's sister Louisa are more than minor characters. They not only support but also, in some ways, take over from Stella's story, as the story circumstances force them to undergo greater character growth and change.
The setting of the story is solidly suburban Sydney, North Shore, middle-class and privileged, but these characters' lives are shown to be anything but bland. Heidke manages to knit together mundane preoccupations which will be familiar to many women: work, husbands, children, ageing parents, repartnering after a failed relationship, fears for the future and regrets over the past; and she does so with skill, humour and more than the occasional insight into human frailties, making the novel overall a very quick, entertaining and engaging read.
Heidke makes no apologies for the everyday focus:
"In another country, there might be a tsunami, a suicide bombing, war - but in Jesse's world, the kids still needed to be fed, their homework completed, their teeth brushed." (p147)
Heidke writes with the confidence of knowing there are lots of women who will relate to and enjoy her insights into the everyday lives of the characters her story depicts.(less)
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.
Leah Giarratano's Black Ice is a crime novel that portrays a clash between the glitz-and-glamour of the Eastern suburbs and the underworld of Sydney's...moreLeah Giarratano's Black Ice is a crime novel that portrays a clash between the glitz-and-glamour of the Eastern suburbs and the underworld of Sydney's west. It follows the exploits of undercover detective Jill Jackson ("Krystal"), her super-model-good-looking party-girl sister Cassie and single mother Seren, a woman with a heart of gold who got mixed up with the wrong people and ended up doing a jail sentence while her ten-year-old son Marco was farmed out to DoCs. Together and apart these women face the threats posed by hot-shot lawyer Christian and thug drug-dealer Nader and their hangers-on.
Sounds unlikely? It is. But Giarratano is an experienced forensic psychologist whose work has given her an entree into the seedy side of Sydney's life, so at one level we have to trust that her characters and plot scenario are authentically portrayed. Yet there was little here I recognised here about the city I grew up in. Much of the language, characterisation, plot and setting came across to me as if they could easily translate into a Hollywood movie.
Maybe to critique Giarratano's book for its lack of distinctive "Australianness" is unfair. Yet I couldn't help thinking that when the author did go for local colour - like her description of the underground food court off Dixon Street - it brought the narrative to life.
There were flashes, too, of edgy, lyrical writing: "Right now, just eleven o'clock in the morning, thrumming beneath the city was Saturday night, waiting to be released. It pulsed and throbbed, biding time, emitting sub-threshold vibrations that caused apprentices to focus for once, to hurry to finish their morning shifts. Fifteen-year-old schoolgirls drilled each other on the elaborate fairytales they'd created for their parents, about who was sleeping at whose house, and what to do if the oldies actually checked. The beautiful people sipped coffees in cafes, waking slowly, apparently languidly, but Saturday night waited beneath them and the beat started an itch they knew would not be scratched until the dark came..." (p207)
It wasn't exactly a page-turner, but it didn't drag either. Part of my problem with it might be because Giarratano's main character, the detective Jill Jackson, is a character regular readers will have met before. That crucial set-up, where a reader is introduced to a character and a bond of empathy is formed, was missing for me. I didn't know enough about Jill and her background to really care what happened to her - until some of her backstory was revealed halfway through. Even then, though, her conflict with her sister and its denouement which could have been - should have been - an emotionally moving scene - coincided with the plot climax in a way that both seemed unlikely and an odd choice by the writer. (Who has an epiphany - and *talks* about it! - at a crime scene?)
The one character I did feel empathy for was single-mum Seren. But I found myself resisting this empathy because I felt the author's manipulations: Seren's character, the naive ex-con, didn't ring true to me. The scenes of her pre-release from prison, however, were among the books most vivid, frightening and memorable. Here Giarratano's background really gives us an insight into a world most of us - thankfully - will never have to know firsthand.
Giarratano chose to distance her main character from the thick of the fray before the climax, a choice which surprised and disappointed me. But maybe that was because, by then, I was expecting her story to adhere to the narrative conventions of Hollywood: I wanted the main character to have something more at stake, something I could get worried about. The ending, while satisfying, didn't deliver that extra bang that such stories usually contrive to create, either. But why should it? There were some neat twists.
Despite the shortcomings and reservations expressed here, I enjoyed this book. Maybe it was always going to be a tough call, reading and reviewing a simple crime novel after having just finished Charlotte Wood's brilliant - though flawed in its own way, too - The Children.(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)
This is a book that, for me, started slowly and gained momentum as I read. To be honest, I only picked it because it had a "J" in the title. I'm combi...moreThis is a book that, for me, started slowly and gained momentum as I read. To be honest, I only picked it because it had a "J" in the title. I'm combining the Australian Women Writers challenge with the Aussie Readers "Challenge with a Twist": each month you have to read a book whose title or author starts with the same letter as that month. "Jones" = "January". I'd initially chosen Margo Lanagan's Black Juice for January, only to find it's a collection of short stories. (Lanagan's first prize-winning story, "Singing the Sister Down" is outstanding, by the way.)
Initially I had my doubts. Any book that has a writer as the central character makes me wary. I've spent too many hours of my life reading "literary" books that seem far removed from life, but I persisted with Dreams of Speaking and was well rewarded. By the end, I was in love with Jones' characters, their different ways of seeing the world and the author's language.
An aspect I particularly loved was Jones' way of interspersing the narrative with "facts". I write "facts" in inverted commas because these sections purport to be facts, but come via one of the book's key characters, Mr Sakamoto, retired Japanese gentleman traveller with a passion for Alexander Graham Bell, who befriends the main character, Alice, the young Australian writer from Perth whom he meets after she has taken up a literary scholarship to live in a studio in Paris.
From a narrative point of view, these interspersed sections of "fact" do a number of things. They provide evidence of the basis of this unlikely friendship, a shared fascination with invention and technology. The "fact" sections also a counterpoint with the shocking drama that underlies these characters' lonely obsessions: the trauma Mr Sakamoto has suffered in surviving the atomic bomb blast of Nagasaki, and the fractured relationship Alice has with her sister Nora, and her former lover Stephen. Gradually, the reader has the impression that these characters' fascination with human invention is both a retreat from a painful world, and a way of reaching out tentatively to others. This dance between distance and connection, intimacy and isolation creates a powerful tension throughout the book and leads to an ending which, for me, was one of the most moving I've read in years.
Who would like this book? People who love language, who love the idea of Australians as global people, equally at home - or at a loss - in Perth, Paris or Japan. Also anyone whose interested in Japanese character and culture, especially the post-nineteenth-century influence of the Meiji restoration with its love of European elegance and sophistication, as well as its embrace of modern technologies. People who are interested in the traumatic aftermath of WWII will find aspect of the book interesting, too - but this subject is treated in an oblique way, which, for me, has a lot more emotional power than something direct.
They say that if a book and its characters are memorable, it’s the sign of a good book: the story and characters remain vivid in the imagination long after you put the book down. It’s too soon after reading to judge whether Dreams of Speaking will have this quality for me. But I can say this: when I got to the end, I felt at war with the author: not because I felt the story failed, but because I cared so strongly about her characters and their fate. I didn't like the ending Jones chose, but I respected it: it seemed true to the characters and the messiness of life generally. Instead of being a diversion and an escape like so many of the page-turning books I've read in recent years, this story made me feel as if it had added hours to my life, expanding my heart and my mind in unexpected ways.