australian novels

bridge of clayWritten 12 years after his breakthrough best-seller The Book Thief, Bridge of Clay is a beautiful and moving novel; but also a very flawed one.

For the first 200 pages I was not at all convinced I could continue reading. Many aspects were overwritten, as if Zusak had spent much too long agonising over each and every word – trying to fill sentences with as much meaning and beauty as possible. The result is a very disjointed beginning. But it leads to quite a poignant ending.

The Dunbar brothers are orphaned – their mother died of cancer years ago, and their father abandoned them not long after. The eldest, Matthew, narrates the novel, but the second-youngest of the five brothers, Clay, is the focus. When their father returns after many years to seek the boys’ help to build a bridge, only Clay looks to reconnect with him. But in doing so, he leaves behind his schooling, his running, his brothers and the girl he loves.

It takes the whole 600-page novel for Clay to be fully developed and realised and to do so, Zusak alternates the narrative between the present and the past, outlining the father’s life before and after his marriage to the boys’ mother, Penny. These flashbacks are clearer and more tender than the elements of the story set in the present, making them the shining light of this novel. Zusak clearly likes the nostalgia.

I’m glad I persevered with this. The ending is powerful and very moving and on the whole, I was satisfied by the narrative. But it’s a good example perhaps of why we cannot spend too long writing anything – sometimes simplicity is the most beautiful thing.

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Book Review of Cedar Valley

cedar valleyFor my poor holiday brain, reading Holy Throsby’s Cedar Valley was like when Goldilocks encountered the porridge of Baby Bear. It was just right.

The pace, charm and characters of this novel are sublime.  Centred in the small town of Cedar Valley, two plot points emerge on the same day which the reader is invited to surmise a connection to.  Firstly, Benny Miller arrives, looking to connect with the deceased mother she barely knew.  Secondly, a strange man in a vintage suits dies mysteriously outside a Curios store.

Both Benny and the stranger begin to touch the lives of the inhabitants of Cedar Valley, and with each passing chapter the mystery of the missing mother and the dead man are slowly, if not completely revealed.  Joyously we are introduced to more and more characters in the town,  whom we warm to and get to know.  None are quite as they appear.

Cedar Valley was a beautiful novel and one I thoroughly enjoyed reading.  Even better, it is an Australian one.  Definitely recommend.

 

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.

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.

 

Book Review of The Best of Adam Sharp

unknown-1Urged on by the light-hearted humour of The Rosie Project and it’s sequel, I picked up Graeme Simsion’s The Best of Adam Sharp as a bit of light holiday reading.

Light reading it achieves. Tick. It starts off as a fairly generalised story of a man in his 50s who is contacted by the love of his youth – an actress he met whilst holidaying in Australia. Her contact instigates an examination of his current life: his work situation, his nights playing trivia at the pub and his relationship which of late has been lacklustre.

Plenty of good novels explore these themes, although this one takes a bit of a strange turn as Sharp takes a holiday with his youthful paramour and her current husband and becomes part of a complex process of them testing their marriage. I found much of this a bit strange and overly complicated, as if Simsion was trying to be more edgy. But ultimately as satisfying a result could have been brought about without some of the awkward sexual antics.

Don’t expect much and you might enjoy this. It doesn’t have the originality of the characters in The Rosie Project and tries a bit hard. But some elements of Sharp will no doubt resonate for many, and the overall message is a pretty good one.

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.