This brilliant, beautifully written, terrible fable of our times was inspired when Wood heard about a group of girls/women who had been rounded up andThis brilliant, beautifully written, terrible fable of our times was inspired when Wood heard about a group of girls/women who had been rounded up and drugged, and carted off to a decommissioned prison at Hay in Western New South Wales in the 1960s. Instead of setting her story back then, as Wood told Susan Wyndham in a recent interview, she decided to create a near-future dystopia. To populate her story, Wood drew from every possible sex scandal she had come across in the media, stories of women who had been depicted as in some way having “asked for it”. Among the group of ten women Wood depicts, there are figures of diverse class, ethnicities, educational backgrounds and personalities, many of whom bear similarities to actual historical figures. Some of these become fully realised characters in their own right, given life via exquisite prose.
This in an extract of a longer review which appears on my book review blog here....more
Ann Turner’s debut novel, The Lost Swimmer, is prefaced with a quote from Heraclitus: "Everything flows and nothing abides, everything gives way and nAnn Turner’s debut novel, The Lost Swimmer, is prefaced with a quote from Heraclitus: "Everything flows and nothing abides, everything gives way and nothing stays fixed." (Heraclitus c. 535-475 BC)
Both the theme of “time” and the image of water pervade the novel.
The first-person narrator, Rebecca Wilding, is a professor of archaeology at the generically-named Coastal University in regional Victoria. She is passionate about ancient artefacts, and the layers of time that make up history. When Rebecca was little, her father drowned at sea, and she has since been wary of water. Despite this, she and her husband Stephen, another academic, have chosen to live close to an ocean beach. Together they travel to Greece and, from there, to Italy, soaking up the past, travelling by boat and holidaying by the sea.
With a first-person narrative, if you’re a thriller reader, you’re primed to suspect an unreliable narrator. Turner does a good job of laying seeds of doubt as we follow Rebecca’s story as she faces more than one mystery that threatens her happiness. These include financial problems that beset her in her role as a less-than-conscientious Head of her department; as well her suspicions about her one-time friend, Priscilla, the attractive Dean, who may or may not be deliberately undermining Rebecca’s job – or, worse, be after her husband. Then there are a plethora of secondary characters whose allegiance to Rebecca may be self-serving, who help and/or hinder her as she attempts to save her family from calamity and discover the truth. And there’s Stephen, the seemingly ideal husband and loving father, who appears to be keeping secrets.
The Lost Swimmer is billed as a “stunning literary thriller” on the front of my review copy. It made me wonder what the publicists think constitutes “literary”. Certainly there are eloquent descriptions and the story is intelligent in its approach, but there is very little in the way of figurative language; the narrative is straightforward linear realism; and there doesn’t appear to me to be layers of ideological or philosophical complexity.
Maybe I’m missing something?
The Lost Swimmer offers a good, solid story and it’s a fine achievement for a debut author who is also, according to the information from the publisher, “an award-winning screenwriter and director”. I can see it as a film.
The Husband’s Secret is a page-turner featuring believable characters, interesting moral issues and more. I read it over the Australia Day weekend andThe Husband’s Secret is a page-turner featuring believable characters, interesting moral issues and more. I read it over the Australia Day weekend and the timing seemed fitting somehow. It could easily be subtitled, ‘A portrait of suburban Australian lives’.
The characters in this novel are ordinary, everyday people who inhabit Sydney’s north shore. They’re people like me, or my sisters, my friends, our mothers and daughters. Catholic-raised, but not observant; juggling haphazard careers and family responsibilities; coping with the ups and downs of problematic marriages, teenaged children, competitiveness, grandchildren, imperfect husbands, as well as past traumas that rise up in the present with unexpected and unpredictable consequences.
There’s Cecilia, the wife of the husband with a secret. She’s a perfectionist, a candidate for a diagnosis of OCD; impossibly organised, generous and thoughtful; quite possibly unbearable as a friend or family member, but also vulnerable and a loving mother.
There’s Rachel, an administrator at Cecilia’s son’s primary school; an aging grandmother who has never quite got over the death of her teenaged daughter, and finds it hard to show love to her adult son.
Then there’s Tess who, until a week ago, would have described her marriage as happy…
These characters’ lives intersect in a narrative that made me both laugh and cry as I identified with the experiences, thoughts, failings, fantasies and bad behaviour of normal human beings under pressure.
Books like this show me how ordinary lives can be extraordinary and interesting. Moriarty seems to write easy-to-read prose effortlessly, adding a degree of emotional truth that surprises me for popular fiction. No wonder she was recently voted Australia’s second-most popular author in a recent online bookshop poll....more
Strong characters in a deftly drawn Blue Mountains setting, this novel shows the author's experience of the criminal justice system and is an excellenStrong characters in a deftly drawn Blue Mountains setting, this novel shows the author's experience of the criminal justice system and is an excellent read....more
In Claiming Noah, Ortlepp creates a very Solomon-esque story in a contemporary setting, and teases it out to a tense and satisfying conclusion. Her poIn Claiming Noah, Ortlepp creates a very Solomon-esque story in a contemporary setting, and teases it out to a tense and satisfying conclusion. Her point-of-view characters are Catriona, the donor mum, and Diana, who adopts Catriona’s embryo; both are sympathetic characters who go through a very rough time and deserve better. They have problems with husbands, newborns and adjusting to dramatic changes in their life circumstances; both suffer tragedy and deception which cause them heartache and take them to the brink.
At times when reading I found myself pulled out of the story thinking, She wouldn’t do that. Why doesn’t she…? But it’s a credit to Ortlepp that she is able to bring her characters to life so well that I began think I knew them!
Claiming Noah is billed as a thriller, but I think it’s more mainstream than that: I wouldn’t put the “thrills” at much more than you’d find in suspense (which is fine by me). There’s nothing externally life-threatening in this story; the life challenges, when they come, stem from the characters’ inner worlds, and the impact of external events on their psychological and mental health, which is only ever really severely tested for Catriona.
I read the novel over a few days and it kept me engaged – rather than “hooked” – for that time. (Considering I also had a lot going on with my own release, that’s no mean feat.) The moral dilemmas the novel presents are interesting, even if the references to the Catholic church’s influence seem a little dated. The ethical issues the story raises deserve to be explored. And what better way to explore them than in entertaining fiction?
The Darkest Room by Johan Theorin has been sitting on my To Be Read pile for a while. It was only when I finished it that I realised it’s the second oThe Darkest Room by Johan Theorin has been sitting on my To Be Read pile for a while. It was only when I finished it that I realised it’s the second of a quartet of books, each set on the island of Öland, Sweden’s second largest island and the smallest of its traditional provinces. Having said that, I think the series must be based more on the setting rather than any plot elements, as The Darkest Room reads like a stand-alone book.
This is where my book begins, Katrine, the year when the manor house at Eel Point was built. For me the house was more than a house where my mother and I lived, it was the place where I became an adult.
…I have heard the dead whispering in the walls. They have so much to tell.
So begins the story of a house on Öland where a young couple, Katrine and Joakim, take up residence with their two children after a family tragedy in Stockholm. This is part of a story within a story, written by Katrine’s artist mother Mirja Rambe, herself the daughter of a famous artist. This secondary story is a tale of lives lost at the house over the centuries, and the souls of the dead who, according to local legend, come back at Christmas.
The larger narrative that makes up the central plot weaves around the points of view of three characters: Katrine’s husband, Joakim; Henrik, a petty criminal; and a police officer, Tilda, who has come to the island to establish a police presence at a time when the community is beset by burglaries and vandalism. These characters’ lives resonate with echoes of past injustices and family secrets. They are drawn together in a thrilling climax during a Christmas blizzard when their fates are decided.
The Darkest Room was voted Best Swedish Crime Novel of 2008 and it’s not hard to see why. The story captivates the reader from page one and keeps intriguing till the end.
The Wire in the Blood series is one of my all-time favourite TV crime shows. I love forensic psychologist Tony Wood’s tetchy relationship with detectiThe Wire in the Blood series is one of my all-time favourite TV crime shows. I love forensic psychologist Tony Wood’s tetchy relationship with detective Carol Jordan. I’ve read and enjoyed a few of the books in the series, as well as other novels written by the well-known Scottish crime writer, Val McDermid, so I was expecting a similar thrilling read from her stand-alone novel, The Vanishing Point.
But… The Vanishing Point didn’t quite do it for me.
With the words “It’s every parents worst nightmare…” emblazoned on the cover, there is no surprise that this is an abduction story – though it has a characteristic McDermid twist. The opening is as thrilling as it is horrifying. A woman, Stephanie, used to be the ghost writer for Scarlett, a now-deceased reality TV celebrity, and godmother and newly-appointed guardian of Scarlett’s five-year-old son, Jimmy. Stephanie has just arrived in the US with Jimmy, about to start a vacation, when the boy is taken in broad daylight from the airport while Stephanie is being checked through security.
In her effort to run after Jimmy and his abductor, Stephanie attracts the attention of airport security, thus providing the reason for her to be kept in custody for hours telling her story to Vivian, a helpful FBI agent. Stephanie discloses how she came to be the child’s guardian, what happened to the boy’s celebrity parents, and details of her own terrifying experiences with an abusive and controlling ex-boyfriend. Throughout her tale, the reader is invited first to suspect one character and then another of abducting the boy. The ex-boyfriend, the resentful cousin – even possibly Scarlett’s agent – all fall under suspicion.
As a narrative device for telling the story, the FBI interview technique is okay, though it does stretch credulity and I guessed the “mystery” element pretty early on. Guessing a mystery for me is not uncommon, but normally, when that happens, there’s something else that keeps me drawn into the story, concern for the characters’ fate perhaps, or an interest in the world the characters inhabit. In the case of The Vanishing Point, neither of those things happened.
For me, the celebrity world of reality TV, even set against a backdrop of News of the World-type phone tappings and the UK music scene, just isn’t compelling. More importantly, I never quite believed in the friendship between Scarlett and Stephanie – a crucial element in the story – which I’m tempted to put down to a lack of depth in characterisation. I finished the book, could even admire elements of the ending, but didn’t have that “Aha!” satisfied feeling of a really good thriller.
It wasn’t a bad story; but nor was it one I’ll be racing off to recommend to my book group. For what it’s worth, I’d say time would be better spent downloading and watching the series Happy Valley, starring Sarah Lancashire. Now that was compelling and thrilling crime drama. I was sorry to see it end.
Julia Crouch’s novel Tarnished starts off like a murder mystery. There’s a body; there’s an innocent byst
Sometimes the past should be left well alone…
Julia Crouch’s novel Tarnished starts off like a murder mystery. There’s a body; there’s an innocent bystander who gets swept up in a discovery which sends his life reeling out of control. Then it starts again, this time with the real story, the one of a child who grows up knowing, but not remembering, strange events that surround her eccentric, potentially sinister, family.
It’s no coincidence that the dedication of this novel is “To my family (no relation)”. This is an engrossing, sometimes blackly comic portrait of a group of related adults who are enmeshed by the past, by secrets and their own needs.
There’s the protagonist Peg who, despite having attained straight As at an exclusive girls’ high school is happy – or resigned – to shuffle books as a library assistant. There are gaps in Peg’s memory which her girlfriend Loz encourages her to fill. Memories about Doll, her grandmother, who raised her since the age of six when Peg’s mother died and her father mysteriously disappeared, and who now has become increasingly fragile with dementia. And Jean, Peg’s bedridden aunt whom Doll has cared for over many years, who is so huge she is now unable to get out of bed and hasn’t left home for a decade.
The novel starts off slowly and reels you in. It shows a dark side of a London underclass, seen through the eyes of a troubled young adult who has been educated beyond her class but who is incapacitated, almost crippled, by things she doesn’t understand. The setting, a tidal estuary on the river Thames is almost a character of the book, its tidal mud flats throwing up the stink and gruesome evidence of sins committed long ago – and hiding them again.
I stayed up reading this novel until 11.30pm, woke again at 4.30am and just had to pick the book back up and finish it. It was worth losing sleep for.
The judge said (I will never forget this), ‘In many ways your life has been a form of punishment.’ Sometimes I wonder what he would have said if I had
The judge said (I will never forget this), ‘In many ways your life has been a form of punishment.’ Sometimes I wonder what he would have said if I had told the truth.
So Sheila Shand, a woman convicted of the manslaughter of her father, wrote in her journal in 1988, hinting at one of the many lies which Laura Wilson’s crime novel, A Thousand Lies, goes on to uncover and explain.
Sheila’s journals, and the sections from her point of view, are an important element of the novel, but the main story centres around her great-niece, Amy Vaughan. Amy is a journalist whose estranged mother has just died and left her another journal, one belonging to Sheila’s sister Mo, revealing a branch of the family she’d not known existed.
Throughout the novel, Amy struggles to deal with the complicated grief of losing a mother who blamed her for her father’s desertion, a ne’er-do-well father who returns in time to take advantage of her meagre inheritance and possibly endanger her life, and a neighbour who has the potential to become a future lover. At the same time she becomes increasingly caught up in the mystery surrounding the whereabouts of her great-aunt Mo, and the trauma that has kept Sheila and her ailing mother Iris silent for many years.
A Thousand Lies was first published in 2006 and was shortlisted for the inaugural Duncan Lawrie Dagger award. I discovered the author, Laura Wilson, via a Twitter suggestion after I’d followed Julia Crouch whose book Tarnished I had read and enjoyed.
I can’t say I was as riveted by A Thousand Lies as I was by Tarnished, but I am fascinated with its subject matter – domestic violence and its long-term psychological effects on women, particularly the ‘learned helplessness’ that keeps women trapped in a vicious cycle. Wilson deals with the subject with sympathy, subtlety and insight, and the plot intrigues the reader enough to keep the pages turning.
One shortcoming, for me, was to do with the novel’s structure: the most dramatic events occurred in the distant past, which the journal device and flashbacks bring to life. The effect of this ‘once-remove’ is an emotional distancing. For many crime readers, this distancing might be a good thing, as the events described are horrific. Readers of psychological suspense, however, might find the storyline lacks a desired sense of immediacy and engagement.
As events of the past begin to bleed into the present, however, the novel heads for a thrilling climax. A Thousand Lies is the first I’ve read by this novelist, but it won’t be the last. It is an engaging read.
Some secrets are so dark you keep them even from yourself.
On the surface, Kind of Cruel by Sophie Hannah is a book I should have loved right from the
Some secrets are so dark you keep them even from yourself.
On the surface, Kind of Cruel by Sophie Hannah is a book I should have loved right from the start. I’ll admit, though, it took me a while to get into. First I had to orient myself to the different first-person narratives, and the time shifts in point of view. The change of fonts should have given me a clue that I was dealing with more than one person, but initially I couldn’t “hear” the difference in voice. Looking back, it should have been obvious.
In retrospect, too, I can admire the structure that had me wondering, right from the start, what “mystery” I was being presented with. This isn’t your usual crime/detective story; nor is it straight psychological suspense/thriller. Rather, it blends the two genres while interrogating the nature of memory, what constitutes subjectivity and mental illness, as well as the intricacies of troubled human relationships and what keeps us from being entirely honest with ourselves and others.
The main character is Amber Hewerdine, a woman whose best friend was killed in an arson attack and who became the guardian of the friend’s two young daughters. She goes to see a hypnotist to help overcome her insomnia, a visit which leads her to become embroiled in a police investigation of another, unrelated woman. This forms the “murder mystery” aspect of the story.
The best thing about Amber is she’s cranky and her sleeplessness enables the reader to forgive her for it. She doesn’t suffer fools, behaves badly and speaks her mind; her one redeeming quality is her fierce love of her friend’s daughters. There’s an energy about this character that I found endearing and strangely liberating; it made me think of Sue Austin’s argument in her book, Women’s Aggressive Fantasies: A Post-Jungian Exploration of Self-Hatred, Love and Agency, that a woman’s acknowledgement of her aggressive thoughts can be healing (and a disavowal of them can be psychologically harmful).
Kind of Cruel is a clever novel, conceptually, structurally and plot-wise. There’s also something psychologically and emotionally satisfying about it, even though the story it generates is bleak.
A book cover that shows a solitary figure walking through a wintry forest has some appeal when you’re sweltering through the hot, humid days of earlyA book cover that shows a solitary figure walking through a wintry forest has some appeal when you’re sweltering through the hot, humid days of early summer in Sydney. So does “16 million books sold”. Charlotte Link’s The Watcher must have something going for it, right?
Maybe it’s the translation from the German; maybe it’s the time-lag between when it was written and when it became available in English; maybe it’s the fact that a German writer has chosen an English setting for her story; whatever it is, Link’s book struck me as a little old-fashioned. And it never really grabbed me. There are dead women. There are women in danger. There are strangely fixated men and men with shady pasts. There are issues: domestic violence, marital discord, loneliness, isolation, paedophilia. The novel examines the question of envy in a way that I should have found more interesting.
Maybe I’ve just been spoilt by having read a few really engaging and structurally more challenging books lately.
The Watcher is absorbing enough for me to have read over a couple of days, but I have a sense it won’t stay in my imagination for long.
Note: I couldn't find the cover for the English edition.
The Winter Hiuse opens with three friends, Robin, Helen and Maia, who, at the end of the First World War and on the verge of adulthood, vow to celebraThe Winter Hiuse opens with three friends, Robin, Helen and Maia, who, at the end of the First World War and on the verge of adulthood, vow to celebrate the great milestones of their lives: their first jobs, travelling abroad, losing their virginity. Robin is a pacifist from a progressive family whose two brothers fought in the war, one never returning, the other coming home with shell shock. Helen is the only child and dutiful daughter of the widowed local rector, a man who believes himself a cut above the rural labourers and artisans who inhabit the run-down cottages of their marsh-surrounded village. Maia is the beauty of the trio, a girl brought up to expect the finer things in life only to be abandoned by her profligate father in the worst possible way.
Each girl has a dream. Robin dreams of escaping the academic fate her father has planned for her and moving to London to become involved in activist politics, to do something that makes a difference in the world. Helen dreams of having a home and family. Maia wants the security of wealth that she knew as a child, and is prepared to do what it takes to get it.
As the girls become women and pursue their dreams, each has to make choices and compromises, face hardships which test their endurance – and their friendship. The adolescent vow of celebrating milestones isn’t forgotten, but it becomes representative of the naivety – if not always innocence – of their youthful hopes, as well as the differences in their personalities, upbringing and values.
The story covers the period of the aftermath of the First World War, through the twenties and into the Great Depression and the Spanish Civil War, and ends with Europe on the brink of another war. These great events aren’t just a backdrop to the story; they play a significant part in Robin’s and Maia’s lives, while Helen’s eventual questioning of her faith is indicative of a broader wave of secularism that reflects the changing values of this time.
The Winter House is an interesting and engrossing story, easy to read and, in parts, moving. It makes me wonder why I don’t read more historical sagas.
I don’t know how I’ve missed reading a book by Jodi Picoult till now. She has been on my radar ever since I read her comments some years ago about theI don’t know how I’ve missed reading a book by Jodi Picoult till now. She has been on my radar ever since I read her comments some years ago about the US literary establishment’s treatment of popular fiction written by women. Yet it took one of the members of my Facebook book group to highly recommend her latest novel, Leaving Time, for me to track down her books on the library shelves. The Tenth Circle, published in 2006, was the one I came home with.
Reading The Tenth Circle gave me the same pleasure that I used to derive from the best of Dean Koontz and Stephen King. Immediately, I felt myself to be in the hands of a gifted storyteller who combines readability, powerful emotion and a fascination with the nature of evil.
The Tenth Circle is all about evil – or, to put it differently, it dramatises the clash between an individual’s wants and needs and those of others; and the limits to which ordinary people might go to save face, to hide from the truth, or to protect themselves or those they love. It uses the trope of a comic book artist who brings to life in a graphic novel a modern-day version of Dante’s trip to the nine circles of hell. Aspects of the artist’s life are reflected in each of the circles. These include what happens to his fourteen-year-old daughter after she tries to get back together with her ex-boyfriend at a friend’s party; the artist’s rocky relationship with his unhappy English-professor wife (who teaches Dante); and the secrets of his troubled childhood growing up as the only white boy in a Yup’ik village in Alaska.
The setting shifts from small-town Maine where everyone knows everyone else’s business, to an even smaller town in Alaska, a desolate but beautiful place which promises escape, tragedy or redemption. The Tenth Circle is a murder mystery, a coming-of-age story and a domestic drama. It’s also about metamorphosis, it brings myth to life and questions what it is that makes us human.
The story is gripping, the characters believable and sympathetic. Picoult’s prose is lucid and sometimes displays flashes of poetry than had me wishing I were reading an ebook so I could highlight lines for future reference. It’s the very best kind of popular fiction.
No wonder her books are New York Times best sellers.
This is a modified extract from a longer discussion of Overington's work that appears on my blog.
In the opening section of Can You Keep A Secret?, OvThis is a modified extract from a longer discussion of Overington's work that appears on my blog.
In the opening section of Can You Keep A Secret?, Overington uses an omniscient narrator to introduce the main characters: Caitlin, the working class girl from Townsville, and Colby, the stockbroker tourist from New York. As the story progresses the narrative focuses on Caitlin and her desire, by whatever means, to live the American dream and be a “mom”, but it’s not via the kind of deep, third-person subjective point of view that appears in much contemporary Australian fiction. Rather, Overington creates distance by relying on dialogue and action to “show” Caitlin’s story: we are never fully invited into her head or to identify with her concerns. For those who feel bogged down by characters’ introspection, this stylistic levity is refreshing; it also better enables the reader to form a judgemental view of the main character and her behaviour.
Even when the narrative switches to first person in the middle section of the story, Caitlin’s “blog” where she writes of her dream of adopting a child, we experience, along with her blog readers, only the illusion of intimacy: we know, from the prior narrative, Caitlin has kept important details from her readers, so we can’t trust what she tells us about herself and her experiences. Again, this makes it easier to judge her in the end.
Overington’s style interests me, as does her boldness in writing the “truth” as she sees it. She is unafraid to polarise, to offend, to invite judgement of behaviour she sees as wrong. She has found a way of doing this, of critiquing aspects of society and human behaviour, while telling a page-turning story.
I first came across Gillian Mears' Foal's Bread in 2012 when participants of the Australian Women Writers Challenge posted their reviews. Eleven revieI first came across Gillian Mears' Foal's Bread in 2012 when participants of the Australian Women Writers Challenge posted their reviews. Eleven reviews appeared that year, the vast majority of which were laudatory. This was a special book, I realised. It could sneak inside your soul, break your heart, move even the most prosaic reviewer to poetry.
Opening the beautiful dust jacket with its glimpse of a galloping horse, I began to read, only soon to slam the book shut again. The initial pages are so horrifically distressing, and yet so beautifully told, I knew I’d need to be stronger to withstand the emotional onslaught.
Years passed and I tried again. This time, I persisted. I read about how in the early twentieth-century a young Aboriginal girl, Noah, finds herself in an intolerable situation, battles through as best she can, has children before she’s fully grown up, and marries a man who, like her, is a champion horse rider. I read of Noah’s strength as mother, farmer and farrier, as her husband Roly succumbs to a mysterious illness, the birth of her daughter Lainey who, like Noah herself, has the talent to become a champion rider. I read how the events of those first few pages haunt Noah through the years until she at last comes to terms with them.
For me the beauty of this story isn’t in the plot. It isn’t even in the language – though that is exquisite. It’s in the truth it conveys about a very difficult subject. One of the facets of certain kinds of childhood sexual assault that many people don’t understand is how survivors can respond. Often the abuser has the child’s trust; sometimes the abuser is just about the only person ever to have shown the child kindness; sometimes the child’s own nascent sexual feelings are stimulated by the sexual violation of their boundaries, so that they don’t even recognise the abuse as abuse. They respond to it as if it were love.
Mears has depicted the complexity of this childhood response with remarkable sensitivity. Her portrayal of Noah as a survivor is done with such understanding and compassion that I find myself in awe at her skill. There is also a great wisdom in her portrayal of how victims can become perpetrators of one kind or another. "Hurt people hurt people”, Mears suggests. It’s a remarkable gift for a writer to convey both the horror of the abuse and such deep compassion.
As its publisher’s page attests, Foal’s Bread has been nominated for and won an outstanding number of awards:
Short-listed, Adelaide Festival Award for Literature, Fiction, 2014 Winner, Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Fiction, 2012 Winner, ALS Gold Medal, 2012 Winner, 60th Annual Book Design Awards, Best Designed Literary Fiction, 2012 Winner, The Age Book of the Year Award Fiction, 2012 Winner, Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction, 2012 Winner, Colin Roderick Award, 2012 Short-listed, NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, Christina Stead Prize for Fiction, 2013 Short-listed, Indie Awards, Fiction prize, 2012 Short-listed, Barbara Jefferis Award, 2012 Short-listed, Miles Franklin Literary Award, 2012 Short-listed, Nita B. Kibble Award, 2012 Short-listed, Australian Book Industry Awards Book of the Year, 2012 Short-listed, West Australian Premier’s Book Award, 2012
“People argue about death” is the opening line of Kate Belle’s novel Being Jade. It might just as well have bNote: this review contains mild spoilers.
“People argue about death” is the opening line of Kate Belle’s novel Being Jade. It might just as well have been, “People argue about love”. For, although grief over a death sets the book’s narrative in motion, many of the questions it raises are about love or, more precisely, whether love and infidelity are compatible. Does fidelity in a relationship matter? Does it make a difference if the couple is married? The woman pregnant? If they have children? The length of time they’ve been together?
Being Jade begins with the first person point of view of Banjo, husband to Jade, father of Cassy and Lissy. Banjo has just been killed in a hit-and-run on a lonely stretch of road on the north coast of New South Wales. The novel explores the mystery of why he was walking there alone, who hit him and why the driver absconded. As Banjo comes to terms with his death, we see his grief over his loss of life, and particularly of his beloved wife Jade, a temperamental artist he fell in love with as a teenager, married at eighteen and lived with for nearly thirty years. Because of Banjo’s grief, the focus of the novel is on Jade, the object of his devotion, and the source of much of his suffering and of that of his children. We learn of Jade’s troubled childhood, her affairs, her serial abandonment of her children when they were small, her drinking and drug-taking; as well as her artwork which features her lovers in outrageously erotic – if not pornographic – detail.
The point of view of the novel alternates between Banjo and his younger daughter Lissy. Through Lissy, we watch as Jade falls into catatonic depression after the funeral. Is it, as Lissy wants to believe, a sign of the depth of her mother’s love and grief at the loss of her soulmate? Or is the truth, as her older sister Cassy suggests, that the depression stems from their mother’s guilt over her own destructive behaviour, a typical narcissistic self-dramatising of a woman who always needs to be the centre of attention?
Being Jade is provocative. Among the questions it poses are, why does society continue to hold double standards for men and women? Why is it shocking when women embrace their sexuality and demand sexual freedom, when they leave their children in the care of the children’s father, when they have multiple partners? And why are representations of a vagina still so confronting?
While the figure of Jade provides the focus of the novel, the emotional and, for me, psychological core is about grief. Not only does it portray the grief experienced over a loss of life, but also the grief one feels when having to come to terms with someone’s otherness, their insistence on being themselves, no matter what harm they might cause to those they love. For this reason, I was uncertain of the ending. Towards the climax, we see deeper into Jade’s affairs, a twist enabled by Banjo’s ghostly status as he sees her memories. Here Banjo appears to accept a new “truth” of her behaviour, that – far from being monstrous – it was loving, even redeeming.
This is one of the areas where I found the novel problematic. (The other was Jade’s portrayal in terms of her Asian-ness, but that’s for another discussion.) Banjo’s – and, through him, the reader’s – revised understanding of Jade has a huge emotional payoff with the girls’ discovery of a particular painting. But it appears to reinscribe Jade in the whore/Madonna trope which the rest of the novel seems at pains to question (with the “Madonna” aspect being figurative – restorative of fallen men – rather than maternal).
Are there sufficient hints of Banjo’s fallibility as a narrator to throw this longed-for redemption of Jade into doubt? Perhaps. Enough to suggest that this view of Jade might be a wish fulfilment for Banjo and Lissy (as well as the reader and perhaps author). In this alternative reading, Banjo and Lissy could be seen as doing what they have always done: choosing to see their all-too-human wife/mother how they want her to be, not who she really might be. And who might she be? A beautiful, talented, self-absorbed and selfish bitch. And what’s wrong with that? Women can be bitches, right? We’re human. What makes this a harder version to accept is that the only points of view we see are from characters whose values are at least influenced by small-town expectations of acceptable roles and behaviour of women.
In the end, I can’t decide which view of Jade does greater justice to the story, the character and women in general. For me, Jade remains a cipher, like the Korean symbol that provides the signature mark of her artwork; a compelling character, rendered in at times beautiful prose, central to a story that kept me reading long into the night and had me wanting to talk about it afterwards. The sign of a good, thought-provoking book.
This review first appeared on my blog and formed part of my contribution to the 2104 Australian Women Writers Challenge.
This book builds on a lifetime of reading, writing, thinking, dreaming, failing, starting again, denying, confronting, shifting and teaching.
This book builds on a lifetime of reading, writing, thinking, dreaming, failing, starting again, denying, confronting, shifting and teaching.
If anyone had told me I’d one day read for pleasure – make that, devour – a Jungian book on public relations, I’d have said they were dreaming. That was before I met Blue Mountains resident, writer and academic, Johanna Fawkes.
In her book Public Relations Ethics and Professionalism: The shadow of excellence, Fawkes writes much how she speaks, with intelligence, intuition and poetic flair. As the opening lines quoted above suggest, she is no stranger to nuances of language. She revels in them. It’s a feature of her writing that betrays the fact that she is not only a Senior Lecturer in Public Relations at Charles Sturt University, she is also a prize-winning writer, having completed a Masters in Creative Writing at Lancaster University and won numerous awards for her short fiction.
But public relations? How can a book on public relations be made readable for a lay audience and still provide enough intellectual rigour to be useful as a text book? With enviable skill Fawkes manages to do both. I read the book from cover to cover in a little over a day and was fascinated. Admittedly, I’m a bit of a closet Jung fan. The idea of exploring questions regarding ethics and public relations by teasing out the “shadow” side of the profession appeals to me – if public relations can indeed be regarded as a “profession”, when much of it, from a lay point of view, appears to deal with the art of persuasion in service of a client, at the limit of which is propaganda.
Fawkes’ discussion weaves in and out of these thorny issues in a way that surprised and stimulated me. I found myself thinking back to a unit I studied when doing a Graduate Diploma of Counselling, and the debates that were raging at the time between Counselling and Psychology – the “territory” wars between the two disciplines, and the tensions between which practices might be considered an “art” and which a “science”, and the attendant professional – and remunerative – ramifications. Fawkes’ book invites such pondering, making it relevant to professions generally, not just public relations. Public relations, in some sense, is the case study for the broader ideas she wishes to bring to our attention.
An aspect of the book I especially enjoyed was the way Fawkes introduces her own experience – including her own personal challenges – into the discussion. It’s a technique consistent with the postmodern breadth of her vision, and one I find particularly engaging.
While reading Chapter 7, “Towards a Jungian Ethic”, I began applying some of the ideas to myself personally. What shadow parts of myself do I reject and why? How might engaging those parts be transformative? By doing so, might I be freer to solve problems and limitations confronting me? Engaging further with these ideas since finishing the book has become an exciting journey, promising to open up all sorts of possibilities. All from a book on PR. That’s quite an achievement!
Public Relations Ethics and Professionalism: The shadow of excellence was launched at the St James Ethics Centre in December. Unfortunately, it isn’t the kind of book you’re likely to stumble across down at your favourite bookshop. It costs too much for that. But you can order it from your academic library. It deserves the widest audience it can get.
This review first appeared on my blog and was part of my contribution to the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge.
There are some books I know, if I don't attempt to review them straightaway, I won't end up reviewing them at all. It's because the impact is so powerThere are some books I know, if I don't attempt to review them straightaway, I won't end up reviewing them at all. It's because the impact is so powerful, the language so beautiful, I grow afraid I won't do them justice. Golden Boys by Sonya Hartnett is one of those books.
I picked up this novel not knowing what audience it was written for - the only other book by Hartnett I've read is a children's picture book. But this novel is no more suitable for children than Lord of the Flies. (Though I did read that when I was twelve.)
Golden Boys isn't nearly as graphic and violent as Lord of the Flies, but its themes - including family violence, grooming, loneliness, isolation and dislocation - are pretty adult. So is the language. It's rich, poetic, dense. And the pace is slow. Nothing much happens - and yet, everything happens; everything that is painfully ordinary, quotidian, that conveys the angsts and traumas of growing up and learning where one fits in the world.
The protagonists of Golden Boys are a group of kids in a working-class Australian suburb in the not-so-distant past. It is a time before the internet and Facebook, when children were allowed to roam the streets unsupervised, the era of the author's own childhood, perhaps. It is also an era, seemingly, pre-multiculturalism and pre-contraception. Several of the children, Declan, Freya and Syd, belong to one household, a working class home with a drunken father, a harried mother, and too many younger siblings. Hartnett is precise in her description of the chaos that is the Kileys' family life, with "the mess which finds its way through the house like the ratty hem of a juvenile junkyard". When working-class Syd Kiley meets the neighbourhood newcomer and private-school educated Bastian Jensen, Hartnett deftly conveys their differences:
Syd and Bastian look at each other, and it's like a Jack Russell being introduced to a budgerigar: in theory they could be friends, but in practice sooner or later there will be bright feathers on the floor.
But the conflict between the two families, the Kileys and the Jensens, isn't due to class. The Jensens have moved into the neighbourhood to escape something, as Bastian's older brother Colt becomes dimly aware. That "something", barely acknowledged but frightening, provides one of the core tensions of the novel, and has to do with Colt's father, Rex, a dentist. Rex has filled their new home with toys, bikes, skateboards, racing tracks; and their backyard will soon have a pool that all the neighbourhood children are invited to use. As Colt reflects:
His father spends money not merely on making his sons envied but in making them - and the world seems to tip the floor - enticing. His father buys bait.
It is how Colt responds to this growing awareness that leads to the climax and denouement on the novel. The ending is dramatic, though not externally earth-shattering, and conveys a sense of truth about the complexity of family loyalties and the burden of carried shame.
I was wondering, as I read the novel, whether it might be useful for HSC English teachers teaching the new "discovery" module. It deals with the theme of discovery in a number of ways: a new neighbourhood, how different classes live, as well as the discovery of growing up and taking responsibility. It's also packed with language forms and features which students could explore. I read an ebook copy and kept interrupting my reading to highlight Hartnett's skillful use of rhetorical devices, similes and metaphors. (A whole post could be devoted to such an analysis.)
Apart from its promise as an educational text, it is a worthwhile and moving book to read.
This is my first review for both the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge and the Aussie Author Challenge. ~
Author: Sonya Hartnett Title: Golden Boys Publisher: Penguin Publication date: August 2014 ISBN: 9781926428611
Review copy kindly supplied to me by the publishers via Netgalley....more
It’s 1978. A fourteen-year-old girl goes missing from a suburb on Sydney’s Northern Beaches. A few days later, her body is found in bushland in Palm BIt’s 1978. A fourteen-year-old girl goes missing from a suburb on Sydney’s Northern Beaches. A few days later, her body is found in bushland in Palm Beach. She’s been strangled with her own scarf and there’s evidence of sexual activity.
Under suspicion are those last to see her alive, including the girl’s cousin Matt and his mates. Suspicion lingers, despite the police being unable to bring a case – until a second girl is found dead at Kings Cross some time later, killed in a near-identical fashion. The murders are attributed to an unknown “serial killer”, dubbed the “Sydney Strangler”, even though no other murdered girls are found.
The two dead girls, local “chick” Angie and country runaway Kelly, aren’t the only “lost girls” in Wendy James’ latest novel, The Lost Girls. There’s Jane, Angie’s younger cousin, and Kelly’s younger sister Kath and her mother. There’s also Angie’s mum Carol and her aunt Barbara. Each is “lost” in some way, coping – or not coping – with the impact of those violent deaths.
The Lost Girls explores this impact thirty years later, when a mysterious journalist, Erin Fury, appears. Ostensibly she’s doing research for a radio program, aiming to explore the impact of such deaths on the families of murdered women. Her first interview is with cousin Jane, now middle-aged and married to childhood sweetheart Rob, with a teenaged daughter. Jane, reassessing what she has done with her life, is eager to revisit the time when her beloved cousin was killed. It’s as if she might answer some pressing personal questions by reviewing that time through adult eyes.
Jane isn’t the only one Erin targets. She also interviews Jane’s brother, one-time suspect Matt; Jane and Matt’s policeman father Doug, now a nursing home resident suffering from dementia; their mother, Barbara; and Jane’s husband, Rob. Each has a take on past events and, as Erin inveigles herself into their lives, long-held, sometimes painful, secrets are revealed.
One aspect of The Lost Girls I particularly admire is its evocation of place and time. I grew up on the Northern Beaches around this time, and many of the specific details James gives – from the local milk bar with its pin-ball machine, to the type of lollies the characters buy – bring back vivid memories. Another aspect is James’ ear for dialogue. So many of the characters sound like people I know or have known. I also admire her skill as a storyteller, her ability to create suspense and her seemingly effortless transitions of time, point of view and tense.
Chiefly I’m interested in the way James uses a sensationalistic premise, that of serial killing, in order to explore facets of human nature. Unlike many contemporary crime and thriller writers, she doesn’t offer violence as entertainment; nor does she place it somewhere “out there”, beyond the experience of the reader. Rather, she shows how individuals respond to such traumatic events, and the effects of the choices they make as a consequence. Along the way, she suggests how such choices shape us as human beings; how we come to terms with suffering, loss, mistakes and betrayal; how we love or try to love, despite disappointment; and the meanings we make of our own and others’ lives.
Crime author Angela Savage has remarked that the reader of James’ novels doesn’t have to suspend disbelief. In general, I’d agree. However, initially while reading The Lost Girls, I found the journalist Erin’s character unconvincing, particularly in terms of motivation. She seemed more of a device than a psychologically realised character. Then I began to see her as one of the “lost girls” of the title and she made more sense to me. And it’s for that reason that I’d disagree with the criticism other reviewers have made of the Epilogue, that it’s somehow a mis-step or unnecessary. For me it resolves the central motif of the story.
With The Lost Girls, James consolidates her place alongside Honey Brown and newcomer Dawn Barker among Australia’s foremost proponents of an emerging genre of psychological suspense, which some have dubbed “suburban noir”. I’m eager to find other Australian authors who might fit into this category. Do you know any? my blog....more
Jaye Ford is becoming known for delivering fast, page-turning thrillers in the style of Nicci French. At the centre of her novels are women, often thiJaye Ford is becoming known for delivering fast, page-turning thrillers in the style of Nicci French. At the centre of her novels are women, often thirty-something, often mums. They come from middle- and working-class backgrounds in regional NSW.
In Ford’s novels, these women are put in jeopardy, sometimes by strangers, other times by those close to them. What differentiates Ford’s characters from many female thriller figures is they don’t rely on a man to rescue them. While there may be a male love interest, her female protagonists are up to the challenge, ready to fight with all their resources, physical, emotional and mental, to survive and triumph.
Already Dead,* Ford’s latest novel, is no exception. As the story opens, the main character, Jax, a widow with a young child, finds herself in the centre of an unfolding drama: a stranger bails her up at a set of lights and jumps in her car just as she is about to get on the freeway heading north from Sydney toward Newcastle. Jax is at a crossroads of her life, literally. Her investigative journalist husband has died; she has walked away from her own journalistic career; she is struggling to find herself as a single mum. Emotionally, she’s at a low ebb, but the events that unfold give her no choice but to step up, to find the inner resources to fight her way out of danger. Before long, she is woven in a web of intrigue, facing more questions than she has answers for. Is her unwelcome passenger a psychotic killer filled with paranoid fantasies? Or is someone really after him – and, by extension, her, once she has spent time with him?
As Jax struggles to differentiate reality from her fears, the reader is taken along a thrilling ride. While she attempts to solve the intrigue that surrounds her mysterious passenger, she has a hard time keeping herself, her daughter and aunt safe. Can she trust the detective, Aiden Hawke, who appears at an opportune time, or is he part of the conspiracy her unwelcome passenger is running from? When the pace accelerates toward an action-packed and thrilling ending, a danger Jax could only imagine becomes real and present, worrying the reader that maybe, this time, guts won’t be enough.
Told from the point of view of Adam Vander, a boy who has been kept locked away from the world by an abusive and controlling father, Through the Crac Told from the point of view of Adam Vander, a boy who has been kept locked away from the world by an abusive and controlling father, Through the Cracks by Honey Brown traverses difficult territory.
Adam has been victimised for so long, he exhibits all the hallmarks of “learned helplessness”: he has become so conditioned to abuse that he appears almost incapable of acting to stop it. Only as he hits puberty, and his father succumbs to health problems, does his sense of agency begin to assert itself. But how can he save himself when he knows nothing about the world, and the few people he encounters, apart from his father, don’t recognise him as someone who desperately needs help?
Brown’s tale of Adam’s escape is both compelling and distressing. Slowly the events that led to his predicament are revealed, and the full horror of what he has endured unfolds. Along the way, Brown touches on issues of race, class, sexuality and, most importantly, identity. Who are you when everything that makes you human has been stripped away?
One of the many elements of this powerful and emotionally wrenching novel that impressed me was its style. The sentences are often short and descriptive; the point of view character indulges in very little introspection and makes few inferences of other characters’ thoughts and feelings. It is as if one of the after effects of abuse is an almost complete lack of interiority. For me, this created an unnerving sense of Adam’s dissociation, his feeling of being utterly separate from the world, both emotionally and psychologically, even as he slowly rejoins it, just as formerly he was isolated physically.
With Through the Cracks, Brown cements her place as one of the foremost writers of psychological suspense in Australia.
Two sisters – step sisters – one, Nadia, is happily married with three children; the other, Zoe, has suffered a debilitatingLet Her Go by Dawn Barker
Two sisters – step sisters – one, Nadia, is happily married with three children; the other, Zoe, has suffered a debilitating illness and a number of miscarriages, and finds herself infertile. Both have reasons for wanting to have a baby: Zoe, to complete her long-held desire to be a mother; Nadia, ostensibly, to help her deserving sister. After years of counselling and legal advice, they enter into a surrogacy agreement. They are adults. They care for each other. What could possibly go wrong?
Fast forward seventeen years to a troubled teenager, Louise, who is getting busted for stealing drugs, self-harming, engaging in drunken sex and whose performance at school is deteriorating. She knows her – unnamed – parents are fighting, senses it has something to do with her, but has no idea of the trauma that followed her birth or the bitter custody dispute that tore her extended family apart.
In Let Her Go Dawn Barker – a psychiatrist by training – successfully juggles different points of view as well as jumps forward and backward in time. Throughout the novel, the reader has a sense that something really terrible could happen – or maybe has happened already – but the suspense isn’t gratuitous. It derives organically from the fraught emotional situations she forces her characters to confront. As I approached the novel’s climax, I was struck by the story’s similarity to the Judgement of Solomon, as if Barker had taken elements of this classic dilemma and brought it alive in a modern context. Both women have good claim to the child; how will the child’s best interest be served?
If Barker’s debut novel Fractured grabs the reader and forces her along a terrifying path, Let Her Go is more like a slow burn, but it’s no less powerful for that. For anyone who has yearned for a child and not been able to conceive or carry to term, the narrative is excruciatingly real at times, almost unbearable. Similarly, Barker captures the pressure on a marriage of women coping with hormones, fears and jealousies. Both Zoe and Nadia are portrayed at times in a poor (but very human) light. Zoe comes across occasionally as unreasonably demanding and judgemental towards her husband, a man with secrets who has never seemed as enthusiastic about the surrogacy and who fails to pull his weight. In portraying the deteriorating relationship, Barker uses irony to good effect: the reader is ahead of Zoe in sensing the effect of her behaviour on her husband, and waits in suspense for the explosion we fear will come. Nadia (understandably) seems at times to be selfishly blind to anyone’s needs but her own, and the reader is torn, sympathetic to her suffering, but alarmed at the lengths she is willing to go to get her way.
Hades is a hard book to classify, though its title gives some clue. “Hades” refers to one of the book’s characters, a “fixer” for Sydney’s underworldHades is a hard book to classify, though its title gives some clue. “Hades” refers to one of the book’s characters, a “fixer” for Sydney’s underworld who takes in two orphaned children, Eden and Eric, and raises them to become police officers – and avengers of their murdered parents. But Hades the Fixer isn’t the central character; the book’s narrator Detective Frank Bennett is.
The story switches from third person flashbacks showing Hades and the children, to Frank’s first-person narration, to the points of view of various victims of a serial killer. The hunt for the serial killer provides the chief narrative drive and opportunity for moral questioning of the story. In this context, “Hades” refers more to the place of torment and suffering that many of the book’s characters appear to occupy. The language of morality pervades the book, nudging it from crime into the realms of horror – without ever being supernatural. As Fox has named Stephen King as the person she’d most like to be trapped in a lift with, perhaps this horror element isn’t surprising.
As crime-horror, the novel poses a number of ethical and moral questions. What creates a killer – nature or nurture? When is taking another human being’s life justified – if ever? What happens to victims of crime? What moral stance would we take if faced with the prospect of imminent death versus the chance of survival? Does every human being deserve to live, no matter what?
With a page-turning plot and enviable style, Fox’s narrative forces the main character – and the reader – to confront these questions.
The concept: what could happen when robotics advance to the extent that the “world’s oldest profession” can be performed by robots, “Skinjobs”? What iThe concept: what could happen when robotics advance to the extent that the “world’s oldest profession” can be performed by robots, “Skinjobs”? What if the powerful forces of the pornography/sex trade industry and the neo-conservative Christian right waged an epic battle to sway the hearts and minds of the American people? What if a lie-detecting FBI agent and a San Francisco PD (female) surveillance officer teamed up in a race against time to prevent the annihilation of thousands of innocent people?
In Skinjob McCabe sets out to address some really interesting questions about gender, sex and power, the most interesting of which, for me, is the ethics of using automatons for sexual relief. The main character, Daniel Masden, isn’t perfect. Nor is the female SFPD operative, Shahida Sanayei (Shari), whom Masden teams up with. Their adventures together are very filmic: the story is action-packed and fast-paced, has lots of interesting “locations”, high-tech gadgetry and car chases.