Australian literature

Book Review of Jane Harper’s The Dry

the dryThis is a reading choice based around the press and discussion around this title – and I have to admit, it’s quite a good story and wonderful to read a mystery so quintessentially Australian.

Aaron Falk is a Federal Investigator who follows the money – that’s his kind of policing.  But when he discovers that his childhood friend in the rural community of Kiewarra has killed his family before turning the gun on himself, Falk not only runs back to the town he never thought to revisit, but is drawn into the investigation.  While most of the town has written Luke Hadler off as a killer, there are tiny details about the crime scene that make just one cop doubt the perpetrator could have been so intimately connected to the family.  Falk cannot leave if there is even a chance of saving his friend’s reputation.

But staying in town isn’t easy either – Falk left under a cloud of suspicion about the disappearance of a young girl 20 years ago.  So while he works to exonerate Luke, he also has to delve back into the past, and confront things he has avoided for so many years.

It’s neatly done and engaging, not the book of the year, but worthy of turning Harper into a success.

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Book Review of Like a House on Fire

like a house on fireI should read more short stories… because when they are done well, they are so infinitely beautiful.

To me, one of the masters of the short story is Raymond Carver, whose beautiful tiny portraits of the disconnection of modern life are so gut-wrenchingly quiet but realistic that they make your heart bleed.  Cate Kennedy’s Australian series of Short Stories, Like a House on Fire, reminds me very much of that deep insight.  It too is a celebration of the triumph and tragedy of everyday life, reflecting how we all have a story and that each life and each moment is of itself, a thing of beauty.

Stand out for me were Laminex and Mirrors, which while cataloguing the experiences of a young woman working as a cleaner in preparation for a trip overseas, is really about the inescapability and inevitability of kindness growing in our hearts.  Seventy-Two Derwents masterfully uses a child narrator to tell a story that is anything but childish in nature. And while nothing much occurs in Waiting, it is a powerful observation of just that – what the mind does while sitting and waiting for news.

It’s clear that Kennedy is more comfortable writing from a female perspective, but there are male voices here too.

I also saw her recently at the Melbourne Writers Festival and had a brilliant time at her free talk on the Anatomy of a Short Story – insightful, fun and relevant.  I have ordered in some more of her work to read.

Book Review of The Nowhere Child

This is my second award-winning novel in a row!The-Nowhere-Child-by-Christian-White

Christian White’s clever premise won him the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for his reasonably engaging mystery, The Nowhere Child.

Kim Leamy has what she thinks is a fairly ordinary life. Then she is approached by a complete stranger – an American – who believes she is Sammy Went, a girl who went missing from his home town at the age of two.

What follows is a believeable unravelling of story and character. Once the seed of doubt is planted, Kim begins to interrogate her past, as best she can since her mother passed away just a few years ago. But it is clear there are secrets in her past – secrets her step-father seems unwilling to share.

Kim follows the trail to America, and reader is treated to a dual narrative – Kim’s present story and the days following Sami’s disappearance.

The most rewarding part is the depiction of small town mentality and those that do – and don’t – fit in. And the power held by the local fundamentalist church – who practice snake handling as a test for purity.

The outcome isn’t entirely unexpected, but still reasonably satisfying.

 

Gushing Review of The Good People

1472712750201Like many, I was spellbound by the love of writing that was apparent in Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites – a detailed and meticulously researched portrayal of the last woman sentenced to death for murder in Iceland.   Burial Rites was a novel destined to take the international stage – one that blended physical and emotional realities masterfully and explored a complex character and the reactions of those around her with sophistication and deftness.

The Good People, Kent’s follow-up, holds all the same magic.

Set in a remote village near the Flesk River in Killarney, The Good People explores the superstitions of simple folk – and the many ways in which they can lead to tragedy. Kent came across the real event in her research for Burial Rites – the story of an aged woman whose defence for murder was based upon her belief that the murdered boy was but a changeling and thus she should not be held accountable. While it is easy to believe this is madness or an excuse for cold-blooded murder, once again Kent creates real human warmth and invites readers to feel sympathy or at least acknowledge the complexity of such cases.

Beautiful prose, complex but real characters and thought-provoking ideas about being a woman in a backwards time make The Good People another likely best-seller. I challenge anyone who loved Burial Rites to not see this as yet another demonstration of Kent as one of the greatest writers of our time.

Yes, I know I’m gushing. But this is worth getting excited about. Comes out in October.

Book Review of The Last Painting of Sarah De Vos

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos_ARC_FINAL MECH.inddAn intriguing and reasonably easy read, The Last Painting of Sara de Vos satisfies with two intertwined narratives.

One is the story of Sara de Vos, a fictional 17th century Dutch female painter and the tragic story of the loss or her daughter, and her subsequent abandonment by her husband.  It’s a moving tale and also an interesting glimpse into how difficult it was to pursue your talents of a woman of this time – even one as exceptional as Sara is portrayed to be.

Interspersed with this is the story of a forgery.  Ellie Shipley, a talented but unappreciated art historian and restorationist is flattered by the offer to ‘copy’ De Vos’ ‘At The Edge of a Wood’ for insurance purposes – and despite the unusual circumstances of the deal, accepts as a way to prove her skills.  Eventually she comes to realise she is creating an elaborate copy for the black market – but by this point she is so engrossed with perfecting the project she cannot stop herself.

The owner of the original – Martin De Groot – uses a private investigator to find Ellie, but his plan to confront her with the truth is thwarted by his growing attraction for the solitary Shipley.

Many, many years later, the two are reunited again when two copies of ‘At The Edge of a Wood’ are sourced for an Australian exhibition.

Some beautiful storytelling and interesting questions raised about the value of art – and the value of a meticulous copy.  Definitely worth a look.

Book Review of The Natural Way of Things

Article Lead - narrow1000660384gjrm43image.related.articleLeadNarrow.353x0.gjrmhs.png1443156291451.jpg-300x0There has been so much press about Charlotte Wood’s Stella Prize winning novel, The Natural Way of Things.  And deservedly so – it is thought-provoking, lyrical in places and has well-rounded characters.  It also has some serious concerns about how we treat women and sex scandals in the media.

Two women – Yolanda and Verla –  awaken in a strange place. Far in the remotest part of Australia, they find themselves imprisoned by people they do not know.  This is the start of a most unusual friendship.

Soon they realise that they are just two of a larger group of women being kept apart from the world – and the one thing they have in common is that they were all embroiled in some kind of sex scandal.

As time passes they are forgotten by the world, and their jailers find themselves just as isolated as the women.  Verla seeks refuge in two things; a dream horse who she longs to ride off into the sunset on, and the hunt for mushrooms to murder the worst of the prison guards.  Yolanda though embraces the isolation, turning into a wild creature.  Her strength sustains the women – and although she retreats into herself, she provides them with meat to sustain themselves.

You think you will know how this book will end, but you don’t. And its nice to be surprised. This is definitely worth a look.

Book Review of A Fraction of the Whole

Now that I’ve told our story in all its fist-eating, gut-wrenching, seat-edging, nail-biting, lip-pulling, chain-smoking, teeth-clenching detail, I wonder: Was it worth it?

UnknownSteve Toltz’s Man Booker Prize nominated  A Fraction of the Whole is a family drama epic in scope.  The Deans are far from your ordinary family – just as this is far from your ordinary novel. There are so many ideas and stories here – many of which would make excellent novels in and of themselves.  Altogether, this is almost overwhelming.  Brilliant, but overwhelming.  Also uneven – some parts are better than others. But most of them will reel you in at some point.

Initially the novel examines the relationship between two brothers – Martin and Terry Dean.  Terry eventually becomes an iconic Australian murderer (much in the style of Ned Kelly), and Martin is the brother who was always overshadowed by his charisma.  Ironically, when he later has a son Jasper, he overshadows him with his brilliance.

The later parts of the text are all about Martin and Jasper – and the complex nature of father-son relationships, where two men are alike, but unwilling to admit it.

The scope and the writing are both impressive and the characters astonishing.  If you can stomach 700 pages of anything, this is a good choice.