Reading / review list 2017

February

Everyone brave is forgiven by Chris Cleave

4½ Stars I wasn’t sure that I wanted to read another book set in World War II but this book was highly recommended and luckily for me, it was available at my wonderful public library. It is an exceptional book, and had me hooked from the first page even forcing me to keep reading much longer each day than I normally allow. It is also fascinating because it was inspired by Cleave’s grandparent’s experiences during the Second World War.

I love the language and imagery in this book; it is the consistent quirky, almost tongue in cheek, with little turns of phrase that are particularly refreshing. The human losses and hardships are not glossed over and there is certainly no glorification of war; however, the good and bad times of everyday happenings are brought to life. For example on the first page where we meet the impetuous Mary

“War was declared at eleven-fifteen and Mary North signed up at noon. She did it at lunch, before telegrams came, in case her mother said no…

She went straight to the War Office. The ink still smelled of salt on the map they issued her. She rushed across town to her assignment, desperate not to miss a minute of the war but anxious she already had.”

Later when Tom is explaining to Alistair his confusion about his relationship with Mary, how she had demanded he find her another job and then asked him to take her to dinner.

“’And so what if she does only want a job? Teaching is important work, and I think she might be good at it’…
‘Did you want to marry her or hire her?’…
‘I haven’t the budget for either. I was just grateful for a civilised conversation…she might be the only person who understands that there are many ways to serve. That one isn’t being unpatriotic by declining to rush off like a schoolboy to fire popguns at the Germans.’”

And when Alistair realises Mary is not Hilda

“Alistair smiled gamely while the universe splintered and reformed itself into this different configuration with a concussion that none of the other diners seemed to feel.”

The descriptive repartees are also very clever. They introduce a lot of humour where there really is horror and wretchedness but still serve to describe the atmosphere and physical aspects of the war years. For example, when Tom and Mary are dining with Alistair and Hilda at The Ritz,

“’This stuff is actually champagne…only the bubbles have been requisitioned to give buoyancy to our submarine fleet.’”.

Or when Alistair and Simonson are sailing off the coast of Malta during an afternoon off,

“While they both looked back at their wake, a floating mine bobbed in it…’Would it have gone off if we had hit it’…’How curious are you to find out’   Absolutely not at all’…’Let’s try to miss it all over again then shall we? I suppose we ought to be getting home again, in any case’…’Oh god, is it wartime already?’

There are also the not so subtle issues of equality of education, racism and the British classes system. There are snippets of the poignant philosophy, as Mary writes to Alistair after she and Hilda applied for ambulance work when she can no longer teach and after so much of London has been bombed

“We live, you see, and even a mule like me must learn. I was brought up to believe that everyone brave is forgiven, but in wartime courage is cheap and clemency out of season.”

There is also a person reason for the author choosing the individuals and the settings which make the story even more satisfying, knowing that some of the people are real and the happenings factual. Nevertheless, the skill of writing and piecing it altogether to make a good story is why I recommend you read the book

Tell the truth, shame the devil by Melina Marchetta

Melina Marchetta is an outstanding storyteller. Over the last 20 years, she has written several YA novels and a fantasy trilogy all of which were award-winners. Apart from her fantasy novels which I did enjoy, each of her YA novels captures the essence of the period in which they are set (1970’s, 1980’s etc.) the dialogue is authentic and the main characters are well developed and likeable.

Tell the truth, shame the devil is a thriller/mystery adult novel which I couldn’t put down. The story is brilliantly well crafted, very contemporary and complex, combining issues of modern parenting, racism, refugees and migrants and terrorism. After a bus is blown-up in a French tourist park, killing several British occupants and injuring many others, there is the expected French and British police investigations until the identities of the children on the bus are revealed.

The plot has many twists and convergences as Bish Ortley, the father of one of the children and currently a ‘stood down’ British police officer, attempts to uncover a reason for the bomb and the identity of the bomber. There are quite a lot of characters who are essential to the story but they are introduced in context and so are easy to differentiate. The story unfolds in a matter of weeks but brings together events that took place 13 years ago that greatly affect the interpretations of the current situation. Marchetta’s storytelling skills keep the reader on edge as snippets of information are revealed through Bish as he links the information he gathers through Noor in prison and also as he reconnects with his family and their contacts. Her use of flawed characters like the alcoholic Bish, who is likeable because he is compassionate and a decent person, prompts the reader to invest in his cause and urge him to make good.

The finale is gratifying as we understand how the plot has been construed and misconstrued and I needed to reread the beginning to confirm the significance of the prologue characters. It is a very good read.

All that is lost between us by Sara Foster

3 and 1/2 stars. A good thriller told from four points of view. Anya and Callum are a modern family with teenage children, Georgia and Zac. The stresses and strains of not just living but possibly overachieving are nearly tearing Anya and Callum apart when catastrophe strikes and Georgia’s best friend and first cousin, Sophie is injured by a hit and run driver.
The two girls have been living double lives for a few weeks before school resumes – which seems a bit unlikely for best friends. Plus there are a few inconsistencies in the plot probabilities but overall it is an entertaining read. The twist at the end is not inconceivable but it takes a while to be resolved.
The four main characters are all quite self-absorbed and seem a little stereotypic. I didn’t feel that I knew them at all at the end although we see everything from their point of view? However Zac, naive and on the cusp of puberty, seems the most likeable and credible.

The Healing Party by Micheline Lee

The Healing Party is a complex book. It is about religious zealotry and controlling abusive family relationships; how love can be twisted and confused and how one can be made to feel guilty if one bucks the system. It is also about regret, the regret we feel if we realise we have lied to ourselves or when it is too late to say ‘I love you’.

Natasha’s past rejection of her father’s religious indoctrination and domination is gradually revealed when she returns to Melbourne after her mother is diagnosed with cancer. Her father and mother are born-again charismatic Christians and expect their daughters to live as they do.

“The miracle is there, we only need to believe. Find it in your heart to believe, Natasha. Will you put aside the “smartness”…and the fashion of ideology…and just believe?” (p10)

In order to assist her mother, while she undergoes chemotherapy, Natasha moves back into the family home and is reminded of all of her past misgivings which lead to her abruptly leaving home and moving to Darwin before she had finished Year 12.

“It was the first time I had realised he made us do things, careless things……I was a stupid mean child who did not appreciate my mother. I always took dad’s side and did his bidding…I never stuck up for her, never had the courage to say anything to Dad.”( P195)

Natasha knows that her father has done some despicable things in the past and knows that the family have chosen to ignore them as they are so dominated by his personality and “charm”. Only Natasha made the break but maintained her relationship with her mother from outside the family home.

“Over the years, I had alternated between knowing he had done it and lied to me, and feeling like a treacherous daughter eager to believe the worst.”  (P201)

Her father’s ability to enthral his family members as well as people in the community is illustrated by the “lost soul” Ed who Natasha meets at a large convention. Natasha is briefly attracted to Ed but Ed is magnetised by her father and Natasha berates him for it harshly.

 “That’s right my father is using you. He shared his touching testimony with you, right? He said you’re special, creative, so deeply spiritual? He’s always looking for someone vulnerable. Someone who will admire him and do his bidding. Just be grateful you’re not a girl…” p222

The whole time Natasha is in Melbourne, she is expected to succumb to the ways of her father and his cronies who are organising the big event – “The healing party will be a manifestation of our faith” (p24). Thus, when the party eventuates, she finds herself in a helpless situation of wanting to defy her father but at the same time needing to support her ailing mother.

Throughout the story, the reader is drawn in by Natasha and her plight. We want her to confront her father and save her mother, and yet her mother wants her to forgive her father. She is forced to make choices Forgive and forget? I wouldn’t know where to begin. (P251)

A mesmerising book that may make you rethink your own relationships.

The Few by Nadia Dalbuono

I finished the book but struggled to the end as I found it very slow. I just realised that it is the first in a trilogy but I won’t be rushing to find the next book as I have a pile of “to reads” that await me.
It is a detective/crime novel set in Italy. There is corruption in the political system as well as the police and there is the mafia influencing the other two in the different regions of Italy to Sicily. The Few are a group of untouchables who due to their positions of wealth and influence believe they are above the law. However the abuse and kidnapping of children just might be their undoing. Added to the situation there are crime wars occurring between migrant groups who are infiltrating from Eastern Europe.
The lead character, Leone Scamarcio is a detective in the “flying squad” who sent in to solve difficult crime jobs. He his well known across Italy due to his previous exploits and seems to have trouble reconciling his mafia family history with his reputation as an honest policeman. He has strange relationships with women and a therapist but none of them are very clearly explained.
Unfortunately I did not like the main character Leone Scamarcio or understand what makes him tick.

Comeback by Peter Corris

When I want to read a reliable, contemporary crime/detective novel I always think of Peter Corris and his distinctive Australian PI character – Cliff Hardy. Peter Corris as Cliff Hardy, walks the reader around inner Sydney as his story unfolds and Cliff is attempting to come out of retirement and resume work as an older investigator. Corris uses words sparingly but they are just right – no flowery descriptions that clog up the pace – yet the reader feels the atmosphere and can visualise the settings clearly.
I read recently that Peter Corris is going blind and has completed his last book because it is too frustrating to write and edit his work. I am quite shocked by this thought and find it difficult to contemplate. I feel so sad for him and his community of readers.

Outback Sister by Rachael Johns

This is my first Rachel Johns novel, “Outback Sisters” is No.4 in the Bunyip Bay series, but didn’t matter  as the book works well as a stand-alone story. It is a good, easy, romantic read with an obvious happy ending but it does touch on some tough contemporary issues such as rural isolation, suicide, eating disorders and on-line dating

Frankie and Simone are sisters who have a lot of friends in Bunyip Bay but neither is in a relationship, Frankie came to Bunyip Bay and set up a cafe after her last relationship ended drastically and Simone is a widow with two teenage daughters. They are both in their 30s and feel left out when all of their friends are finding partners and getting married.

Jason and Logan are brothers who are live on a farm, and like many men who work in rural areas are finding it very difficult to meet their ideal partner. Their family history was very sad, full of loss and grief and they have had a hard time maintaining any recent relationships while they ran the farm and brought up their younger sister.

Things to ponder – It was interesting to think about on-line hookups, because no matter how good a person may seem online it is only when two people meet face-to-face that they can find out if there is any chemistry or real attraction. Nevertheless is love at-first-sight or lust a basis for an enduring relationship or can two people grow to love each other if there is no initial partiality?

I am reading more books written by Australian women writers as part of a reading challenge so I am keen to read as wider a range of genres as possible. I don’t read many romances but I enjoyed this one and will look out for more by this author.

On the Blue train by Kristel Thornell

Kristel Thornell has concocted a story that takes place during December 1926 and is predominantly situated in the fashionable spa resort town of Harrogate. She has extrapolated well-documented events concerning the author Agatha Christie and her first husband Archie Christie, and cleverly entwined the actualities with possibilities and fabricated the types of people who could have been in Harrogate at the same time.

In December 1926, Agatha Christie disappeared from her home and was “found” eleven days later in Swan Hydro Hotel in Harrogate. There was a bit of a scandal, a nationwide police search and immense media speculation, however, the mystery was never resolved, thereby spawning a singular plot to exploit.

In the beginning of the story of On the Blue Train, Agatha encounters and stalks a young woman in Harrods. She is obviously out of sorts, almost as if she is in a dreamlike state or suffering from shock. She is making irrational and impulsive decisions, giving her address as a hotel in Harrogate and spontaneously creating a new persona for herself– Teresa Neele. [Nancy Neele is the real name of the woman Archie Christie married after divorcing Agatha]

As the story develops, we realise how depressed and alone Teresa is feeling. She is still grieving the death of her mother and overwhelmed by sadness after going through the family house and all of her family possessions. She is also suffering from writers’ block, but her mind is confused and she has forgotten (p58) “she realised that she herself was writing a book about a train, Le train bleu. A wretched train wreck of a book.” In the intervening time, her husband had requested a divorce and she suspects that there might be another woman involved and not just his love of golf. Could all of these have instigated her bizarre flight to Harrogate?

At the same time, we glimpse Teresa/Agatha through the eyes of Harry another hotel guest. He is intrigued by the sad, mysterious and elusive Teresa, who he thinks is somehow false. He is a rich widower and is very attracted to Teresa, however after reading a newspaper article he is convinced that she is the missing author Agatha Christie, a wife and mother. Nevertheless, they continue to meet, dance and enjoy each other’s restricted clandestine company.

The writing style is very descriptive, languid, and maybe old fashioned but it is fitting for a novel set in the period. For example,

“Gentle sunshine in a cerulean sky. Benign clouds that might have drifted from an illustration in a children’s storybook. Harrogate was a salubrious, superior place, time itself seeming to progress smoothly there, coasting.

The style is also fitting for a story about the ‘idle’ rich on holiday in a tourist town.

“He’d change his trousers for dinner, so it didn’t matter how creased they became. Oh minor vanities, he reflected, paltry and essential for keeping us pinned to the social world, where we would otherwise flutter away into yawning holes of solitary hours.”

Apart from the obvious plot concerning Agatha Christie’s disappearance, the issue of mental health is apparent throughout the story. In particular, each of the four main characters are still grieving for the loss of a spouse, a relationship  or of a child and each serves to display how grief can affect the mental health of a person long after their loss.

January

After the carnage by Tara June Winch

This eclectic collection of short stories confirms the ingenuity of the author. Each story is written from a different point of view; her characters varying from Australian to other ethnic origins, males to females, migrants and ex-pats to refugees, and affluent to working class. Similarly, the stories are set in diverse locations from Australia to France to the high seas
The themes are blunt; incompatible relationships, dysfunctional families, social class clashes, domestic violence and abuse, and Winch’s writing is often acerbic but frequently there is a last line when self-realisation gives a story a positive finale. This is wonderful writing.

Useful by Debra Oswald

A funny light read with some serious ideas thrown in to make it a good story.

Nine Days by Toni Jordan

Between a wolf and a dog by Georgia Blain

Between a Wolf and a Dog is a beautiful description of a family and their tangled relationships. It is a wonderfully crafted story that weaves between two time periods – the Now and Three Years Earlier. The main characters are three generations of one family; Hilary and her daughters Ester and April, Ester’s identical twins Catherine and Lara – and Lawrence, Ester’s ex-husband. The adult women are strong, artistic, independent and tangible. The shortcomings of the characters are convincing and made them all the more likeable to me. However, it is extremely sad because it is the last book the author published before she died and phenomenal, because the character, Hilary is also dying of a brain tumour.
The weather (continual rain) accentuates the melancholic days during Now, when all four of the adults are forced to make decisions and changes in their lives. The rain is stressed by the mention of windscreen wipers, umbrellas, wet clothing etc. making the reader remember the real inconvenience of it. In contrast in the very last section – The Day After – the rain has stopped – decisions have been made – everything is “washed clean and new”.
The theme of forgiveness reappears throughout the book. Maurie, Ester and April’s father, made the girls apologise to each other to try to get them to forgive, whenever they were having sister squabbles. However, their sibling issues reach a climax as adults and are impossible to reconcile. Ester’s counsellor and her mother Hilary, urge her to forgive Lawrence, but can Ester ever forgive April. one p127 ‘sometimes forgiveness isn’t enough…How do you learn to forget?….true forgiveness changes even the memory of the event’ p128 from the middle it is different…both daughters are too close to the middle to reflect.
The idea of regret is also an underlying theme. There are so many interesting images and ideas that pop up when Ester is detailing the histories of her clients. People often say that they don’t regret anything but with Ester’s client, Chris, regret for not appreciating what one has had is very clear. Chris is grieving for his dead daughter (and the loss of his marriage) “is angry with his former self…Because he had everything. He was blessed with an ordinary life. And he didn’t know it”
It is this understanding of human nature and the ability to write about it that makes this book so very good.

The Mothers by Brit Bennett

Past the shallows by Favel Parrett

Favel Parrett created a sad story of a dysfunctional family destroyed and disintegrating since a betrayal and death in the recent past. It is set in the remote fishing region south of Huonville in Tasmania. The father is an unsuccessful abalone diver who is struggling to pay his bills and look after his younger sons Miles and Harry whom he seems to despise. Joe, the oldest son moved out to live with his grandfather who taught him to be a carpenter and aided him to build a boat. The three boys regularly go to the beach together, Joe and Miles to surf and Harry to play and look for objects washed up. Everything becomes even harder when Miles is forced by his father to join him on his boat as crew after his Uncle Nick is “lost” at sea.
Like the beautiful Tasmanian countryside the novel slowly unfolds as snippets of information leak out and the reader gets to know and like Harry and his brothers. The author cleverly reels in the reader, until near the end the truth comes out and we are left with an inevitable sad ending and an escape.

Our magic hour by Jennifer Down

This is an astounding novel about contemporary young adult lives and deals with some very important social issues. The writing is strong with short sharp sentences and the dialogue flows naturally so it is an easy read. But the themes are harsh and genuine; suicide, child abuse, family violence, illegal drug use, child carers and mental health problems. Jennifer Down dissects the issue of suicide like an experienced surgeon. The why’s, the guilt, sadness, anger and all of the other emotions experienced by those who are left behind are so well pieced together it may be too emotionally difficult to read and absorb for anyone who has lost a loved one to suicide. The other social issues are not diminished but are relevant to the complex contemporary society depicted in the story.
No one can prepare for a sudden death and this successful first-time suicide devastates all of the friends and relatives who must accept their own survival in the empty aftermath. How they live, work, relate to each other and finally accept their friend’s death in the year that follows makes ‘Our Magic Hour’ a gratifying read.

Springtime by Michelle de Krester

I snatched this book from the library shelves when I dashed in to pick up my book requests. I really enjoyed Michelle De Kretser’s Questions of Travel and was interested to see how she would handle a novella/ghost story and am so happy for this find.
Frances is in a relationship with Charles, who moves with her to Sydney when she takes up a university research fellowship. She has a rescued dog called Rod who has issues with other dogs and children. Charles is older than Frances in age and habits, and he has a young son who is sent to visit. Frances and Charles both have french mothers and they find out more about each other as they ‘discover Sydney’.
In Springtime, De Kretser writes succinctly almost teasingly. She shows you in brief sentences and phrases the gist of what is necessary and lets you join the dots. She hints at doomed relationships and only confirms your suspicions by another sentence later in the novella. Likewise the ghost – it is a ghost story – you know what Frances thinks she saw, but De Krester shows you (not tells you) by a single simple sentence and a final paragraph further possibilities for Frances.
Her comparisons between Sydney and Melbourne, streets, dress styles, even the weather are amusing and created lovely images for me.

To capture what we cannot keep by Beatrice Colin

A captivating, well researched, entertaining read.
I won an uncorrected proof of this novel from Allen and Unwin when I entered a competition requiring a comment about an icon. I described my sentimental attachment to the Sydney Harbour bridge, which is only relevant because I grew up in Sydney and whenever I return to Australia and fly over the bridge I know that I am home.
Iconic structures such as the Sydney Harbour bridge, the Opera House, the Taj Mahal, Statue of Liberty, Big Ben, and the Eiffel Tower, are alluring items on travellers’ bucket lists and obvious selfie backdrops because they are proof that one has travelled. Nevertheless, many stories include famous icons as settings or meeting places because they immediately establish the setting without having to describe too many other details to the reader and the story can unfold quickly. Initially I thought this book was going to be a simple historical romance set in Paris, especially from the cover picture and on glancing at the blurbs – but I soon realised it is far from that.
In “To Capture what we cannot keep”, Beatrice Colin has written an historical novel in which the construction of the iconic tower is an integral part of her story. Her creation of plausible characters who meet in Paris during the 1880’s is very engaging and informative. It is an exciting time for innovative scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs of industry and there is the possibility for people to become very rich very quickly if they take risks. There are new forms of transport and new technologies like photography becoming more available to the masses. There is the creation of a new class of people based on wealth who will change and upset society from this period onward. This excitement of the time sets the initial scene of the book as the two main characters from different social classes, first cross paths in a hot air balloon tethered near the centre of Paris.
The historical subjugation of women in western society is highlighted by the predicament of her main character Cait Wallace. Cait is a recently widowed, young, well-educated, middle class woman, but as she is left without adequate financial resources her choices are limited. To maintain the standard of living that she has been brought up to expect in her class of society she must either remarry or find a suitable position such as a governess, a companion to an older person or as a chaperone. Hence, she agrees to chaperone two spoilt Glaswegian young adults to Europe, finishing in Paris where the story commences.
The position of women is further illustrated by Alice, one of Cait’s charges, who is relentlessly and naively looking for a husband and is easily led astray by unscrupulous people. Alice’s treatment of Cait is often contemptuous as Cait, with no money nor a rich husband, has no real authority or respect. When Alice is charitable she treats her like a big sister or friend but when she is surly – like an uneducated maid. Furthermore, Alice’s brother Jamie, because of his connections and despite his incompetence, assumes a right to work with the company constructing the Eiffel Tower. At the same time he places Cait in an unenviable position because she has no power to control his behaviour or to curb his waywardness.
Colin reveals a quirky sense of humour when she describes the ridiculousness of the customs and clothing worn during that period – the full petticoats, bustles and hoops – especially when she gives the details involved when the characters must dress after they have had a secret liaison. Also when they are “caught” with the office door locked at the construction office.
The characterisation is sufficient with the two main characters being well-developed and made likeable. The lesser characters such as Alice and Jamie are more superficial and sketchy. The reader is not likely to sympathise with them despite their troubles, because we are not privy to their point of view and their selfishness and carelessness only increases Cait’s angst throughout their times in Paris.

The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer by Kate Summerscale

I was fascinated by the story behind the book and impressed with the author’s tenacity in tracing Robert Coombes after he was released from Broadmoor and finally to his later years in Australia. Matricide is not a common crime and the details related in the epilogue comparing young murderers are very relevant in this story. The author has researched widely to trace the family members and neighbours, their correspondence, photographs, court illustrations and articles written about the murder and the murderers. She has compiled comprehensive notes for each chapter, a selected bibliography and created an index for quick access to important people and other relevant data.
In the first part of the book, I was not impressed primarily with much of the repetition of many of the details, from the two brothers, the neighbours, reporters, and policemen, before and after the trial. Each interview or comment is interesting but the reader does not need to have every source included, nor do they all have to be explained. For example, the letter written by Robert’s mother Emily to his father is printed on p218 and then is analysed and interpreted on p219.by the writer – including the copy of a letter and then reworking the theme and substance of the letter is unnecessary and I found quite patronising as a reader.
The latter half of the book is excellent and well written. This follows Robert’s life and his encounters in prison, his friendship with Frank Rogers and the similarities of their matricides, and the psychological theories about adolescence at the time. Robert follows brother Nattie to Australia just before the commencement of World War 1 and both young men are enlisted with the Australians forces. Robert’s war service experiences are harrowing but he gains self-confidence and self-esteem because he saves lives and is recognised for this.
The epilogue is rewarding as the author personalises the appeal of her research and her desire to follow up Robert Coombs life and fulfilling relationships prior to his death.