Book Review: Goodwood by Holly Throsby

This book has been popping up everywhere lately. I’ve seen it on social media, in emails, in bookshop front windows. It’s another of those Australian slow-build crime books written by Australian women that have been showing up recently – I’m thinking particularly of The Dry by Karen Harper and An Isolated Incident by Emily Maguire.

I think it’s great that female writers are really embracing this genre, as they seem to be more focussed on the impact of the crime on the community surrounding it than on solving the incident itself. This is a refreshing take on crime writing and lends itself to more nuanced storylines.

Goodwood is Holly Throsby’s first novel, but she’s no stranger to writing. As a singer/songwriter she’s recorded four solo albums, a collection of original children’s songs, and was part of a group called Seeker, Lover, Keeper with Sarah Blasko and Sally Seltmann. There is a lyrical quality to Holly’s writing, it seems to flow gently on the page like the incoming tide, as the drama gradually reaches its height. It is a gentle book and it takes its time to reach a conclusion.

I was ridiculously excited it was set in the 1990s. That’s just fantastic! I feel like that’s a fairly unusual choice. I was just a youngster back then and it brought back rich memories of troll dolls and Walkmans, tie-dye and home phones, so fresh in my mind it was like I’d been catapulted back there. Goodwood, the little town where the book was set could have been my old home town, so immediately the story felt familiar. I’m sure it would for many of you as well.

The narrative is driven by 17-year-old Jean Brown as she tries to come to terms with the disappearance of two key community members. Rosie White, the cool girl all the younger teens looked up to, and Bart McDonald, a popular middle-aged man who ran the town butcher. They disappear separately within a week and the town is sent into turmoil trying to work out what happened. Are their disappearances connected somehow, or was it just two random incidents in a sleepy little town where nothing ever seemed to happen?

I enjoyed the premise of the story, although I didn’t put too much stock in the end result. It was the cast of quirky minor characters that really brought the story to life for me. There was a lot of complexity in their lives, a lot of small-town-centric drama that just isn’t found in the isolation of a city. It made me think of all my friends who live in the city and how they talk sometimes of the loneliness they feel. Sure, they have friends, but that sense of community found in small towns isn’t always there. You really can get lost among all those people, but in Goodwood, as in many small towns, no one escapes notice.

Oddly enough, the character I struggled to relate to the most was Jean. I found her voice really changed throughout the book. Sometimes she seemed too young for her 17 years, sometimes quite old. I guess that’s a part of the ebb and flow of teenage emotion though.

This is a great read for those who like small-town sagas, quirky characters, and slow-build mysteries where the impact on the community is central to the plot.

Amanda

PS. You’ll be pleased to know I actually witnessed Jody picking up a book yesterday! Fingers crossed she’s on her way out of her slump.

Book Review: A Promise of Fire by Amanda Bouchet

A Promise of Fire by Amanda Bouchet was a surprise find for me. I wasn’t familiar with the author, nor had I read any reviews or social media chatter surrounding the book. I picked this one up purely for the beautiful cover! Oddly enough, after I’d bought it I came across another edition with a cover that was completely different. I would never have picked up this book with that cover! Isn’t that interesting?!

Anyway, what did I get from my surprise find? I got a book I found very hard to put down almost from the very first page! By no means is A Promise of Fire a new story; in fact, reading it I was reminded of other series – The Study and Healer series by Maria V Snyder – both of which I thoroughly enjoyed. A Promise of Fire has your feisty heroine, your dark, menacing stranger, plus your totally dependable band of strong, loveable soldiers. What makes it different is the interesting fantasy world Amanda Bouchet has created for these characters to live in. I also found the first person narrative highly engaging.

I am a huge fan of fantasy books, but I am also very choosy. I like to read stories focused around female characters and told from their perspective. A Promise of Fire, the first book in a new fantasy series called The Kingmaker Chronicles; delivers just that.

The story is told by an unlikely heroine named Cat. She gradually introduces the reader to a world interwoven with Greek mythology, magic and politics. It’s a world divided into three kingdoms, Fisa, Sinta and Tarvan; each with their own ruling family. The main character, Cat was born into the Fisa kingdom but is trying to avoid her terrifying destiny by hiding out in Sinta.

I like Cat’s character very much. She is funny, strong but at the same time vulnerable. The way Amanda Bouchet writes the character is entertaining; she would say one thing and think something entirely different, and you were taken along with her observations. It was highly original and really added to the depth of character.

There’s a lot of romantic tension in this book, which is not something I’m usually that into and I think the story and world was intriguing enough without it.  But I really liked both characters involved in the romance, so that made the story speed along. I’ve read some quite critical reviews of this novel (lesson learned: never read reviews before writing your own!)  but I think there’s no harm in it and it’s a fantastic story. An adventure.

A Promise of Fire was a great book and I will eagerly await the next in the series. But was it a romance with fantasy elements or a fantasy with romance thrown in? Has anyone out there read it? What do you think?

Jody

Book Review: An Isolated Incident by Emily Maguire

Annabel Crabb recently talked about Emily Maguire on her podcast with Leigh Sales, Chat 10 Looks 3  (which I love!). I hadn’t really heard much about Emily Maguire before, although her first book was published in 2004. Sorry Emily! Anyway, since I read The Dry by Karen Harper a few weeks ago, I’ve been exploring what Australia has to offer in the way of female crime writers.

Emily’s latest book, An Isolated Incidentrevolves around the murder of Bella Michaels, a 25 -year-old small town darling who is killed in a most brutal way. The book never goes into great detail about the nature of her death, instead the incident is implied through others’ reactions to it. This was an interesting take, as it avoids the gruesome details but allows the reader’s imagination to fill in the blanks.

The book tells the story of Bella’s older sister, Chris, a bartender in the small town of Strathdee.

These were the parts of Strathdee the tourists never saw, lined with red-brick and fibro rentals with squat steel fences out front…I exchanged glances with a chain-smoking teenager half watching two toddlers beating each other with plastic tools.

Chris is a hard-working, good-natured woman who before her sister’s murder had wanted little more than a house she could own for herself. Bella’s murder sends her deep into depression. She is filling in the blanks in the same way that we do as we read through the story, and it is understandably driving her to despair.

The impact Bella’s murder has on Chris’s life is profound, and it’s heightened by the media attention that follows. This aspect of the novel rang true of many murder investigations familiar to us here in Australia – Anita Cobby, Jill Meagher, Stephanie Scott. The media attention around these cases was intense, and this novel strives to highlight the effect this has on the family around the victim. The constant harassment, and the debate over using the media to garner information versus having to go through such a private suffering so publicly,  are things Chris battles with daily.

These issues are particularly crystallised through the perspective of May Norman, an investigative reporter who finds herself drawn into the story, even after the attention from rival reporters has died down. Eventually their stories intertwine and Chris finds an unexpected friend in the young city girl.

I don’t want to give the ending away, so I won’t write much about it. I will just say that it’s an interesting take on a crime novel, particularly because the ending is so anti-climactic and I don’t mean that in a bad way. You’re never really directed to suspect particular characters, you never wonder – is that who did it? Instead you’re drawn into the story because of the impact on the small town mindset, the emotion it draws out of the characters, the fear and despair that exudes from the pages. That is where the power of the novel lies, and it is indeed powerful. It’s a great one for book clubs because there is so much you can talk about – the ending, the small-town life, the media, and the connections to those real-life cases. A fascinating, engaging read that felt, at times, a little too real.

Amanda

Book Review: Kakadu Sunset by Annie Seaton

It’s taken me a while to write and publish this review. I’ve been sitting on it for some reason. I think it’s because Kakadu Sunset by Annie Seaton is quite outside my comfort zone. At least, these days it is. A long time ago I worked for a certain well-known romance publisher, and I read so much romance back then I was quite burnt out after I left. Then Annie herself completely won me over in the interview she did with us a while back. She writes passionately about environmental issues and is a wonderful advocate for the Australian landscape.

Kakadu Sunset was, frankly, more than I expected. I expected a light holiday read. And it was. I expected a fast-paced plot. And there was. I expected romance and what-do-you-know, there was.

Most romance novels are also very character-driven, and this one was too, but there was a depth to the plot I wasn’t expecting. Annie manages to deftly include environmental issues like mining and sustainability in a way that doesn’t try to teach, but still addresses the issues around owning large stretches of land in a country where land is sought and bought for the riches that lie beneath. These issues were woven into the story as a natural part of the plot-line, and I came out with a better understanding of fracking and its impact on the environment.

The main character, Ellie, is a helicopter pilot who flies tourists over the spectacular Kakadu National Park. She loves her job, and her simple life living on the tourist resort. When she flies over her old family property and sees deep gouges in the land her family had loved, she is horrified and curious. Who has been digging so close to protected land? So starts a journey that puts her in great danger, a danger born of human greed and the depths some will sink to in seeking wealth.

Along the way, Ellie meets Kane, a sullen co-pilot and ex-soldier who is dealing with some pretty hefty post-traumatic stress. This is another issue prevalent in our society today, and while Annie really only skims the surface of the psychological damage done to soldiers, it was interesting to read about a male character with a level of vulnerability. We all come into a relationship with baggage; for some it’s closer to the surface than for others.

While Kakadu Sunset is long-form romance, it’s a quick, light read and a great example of the genre, which is why it’s been shortlisted for the Romance Writers of Australia (RWA) Romance Book of the Year 2016.

After reading this book, I will be happy to pick up another Australian romance every once in a while. I’ve realised that they’re great for when life is moving a little too quickly, and you want a break from the heavier, more literary novels (which I did at the time), or if you’re planning to lie by the beach for a while (and if you are I’m completely jealous). So I’m grateful to Annie for that.

Amanda x

We received a copy of Kakadu Sunset to review from Annie. Thanks Annie!

Book Review: The Dry by Jane Harper

Jody and I both love reading Australian books. We feel so lucky to live in a country with such a rich literary landscape, despite the relatively small population. The country itself is large though, and a large country with a small population lends itself to loneliness and isolation. This landscape makes the perfect setting for crime stories like The Dry by Jane Harper.

The Dry is set in an Australian drought, where the heat shimmers off the dusty land. The farms and their animals are dying, their bones left to be picked clean and whiten in the sun. It is set in small-town Kiewarra, where everyone knows everyone else and little remains secret. There is one heavy secret lingering over the town though. It is a secret kept between Aaron Falk and Luke Hadler, about a friend of theirs who drowned in the river many years ago when they were just teenagers. This death forces Falk and his father out of the town and into the city, where he lives an unsettled life.

That is, until Luke Hadler turns a gun on his wife and his young son in Kiewarra, before killing himself. At least, that’s what seems to have happened. Falk returns to the town to mourn his friend’s death but soon finds himself caught up in the secrets of the past.

The Dry is a true page-tuner. I read it quickly – on the train, in my lunch break, late into the night, wanting to know what happens. The appeal is in the landscape which reflects the attitudes of the town, and those of the main character Falk. He has dried up since he left town, just living life without much thought, without much depth. A kind of personal drought.

This is one of those books where the landscape itself is a character. The townspeople are so impacted by the drought there is a frenzy, a kind of madness in them all. So much so that little thought is given when an average man seemingly murders his family.

The story swings between Falk’s memories of the past and the trials of the present and never stops building. It is a story of misdirection, which leads you along a path that is entirely futile. That is the only thing I found a little disappointing, the ending wasn’t particularly clever, there was no great twist. It was just not what they were leading you to believe.

I’m trying not to give too much away because it’s entirely worth reading and to tell you the truth, I’m pretty desperate for someone else to read it so we can compare notes, because I think opinions on the ending will be quite divisive.

Apart from the vicious crime, The Dry is quite a light read, not heavy on description but rather more plot driven. Great to take on a holiday, or if you’re a commuter like me, one that’s fab for the trip to work – just difficult to put down when you get there!

Amanda

Book Review: The Memory Artist by Katherine Brabon

The Memory Artist is not a book to read in fits and spurts. It’s not a book to read with a deal of background noise. With any background noise to be fair. It is a book to be read when time is of no consequence, when there are no demands for attention from others. When you can sit quietly, in your favourite chair, in your favourite setting, with a big pot of tea, ready to take it all in.

It’s not an easy book. At least, I didn’t find it an easy book, partly because I’m not all that familiar with the historical setting. The main character, Pasha, was born in Moscow during Brezhnev’s repressive rule. His mother and father were dissidents and he grew up around those suffering under Stalinist violence.

Later, in 1999, we follow Pasha as he lives alone in St Petersburg. He struggles with his desires to become a writer and the lack of evidence to suggest he might one day make money doing so. When his mother dies, he returns to Moscow and tries to capture the memories of those who lived through those horrible years that haunt him and those around him.

The book hops from time to time in a way which makes it difficult to follow if you don’t have a precious hour or two to sit and read it in big chunks. It doesn’t follow traditional narrative convention, crisscrossing between story lines and characters. The Russian words, names and surnames slip and slide through your brain until you get a grip on the story – then before you know it it has shifted again. Maybe that was just me though, I was struggling to get that time to just sit and concentrate.

But The Memory Artist is a beautiful statement on how the past leaves an imprint on the pages of the present. ‘Though memories don’t always have words, they usually have a place,” Brabon writes. Like that feeling you get when you walk into an old house, or return to your childhood school. When you look at an old photograph, when you try to understand your family history. Like somehow it’s all connected.

I might have put The Memory Tree down if I hadn’t been entirely caught in the beautiful imagery dotted through the pages. The stark profundity of it:

I thought of my father and all the silent spaces in our apartment where he still lived, despite his death, where every day he still breathed.

Where small currents pulled or sandbanks rose up, the watery sheet looked like a blanket unfolded, a bed unmade.

 The dusty roads seemed no longer useful, just lonely, pale snakes twisting through a ghost town that held only the subtlest evidence of past occupants.

 Perhaps we return to words because a human needs their experience reflected somewhere. We return to art because it reflects our incompleteness; true art is full of gaps, and so we need it again and again, because that is how we live and remember.

Brabon writes so poignantly about death, about memory, about life, that you roll along with her, waiting to see how the threads will be caught up and yet knowing they just won’t be. Couldn’t be really. She writes about the human condition and the suffering inflicted on generations after repression. What lingers on despite a relaxing, an opening of the boundaries of such stringent rule. A kind of generational palimpsest which leaves loneliness and loss in its wake.

Maybe when we are pushed to the limits, art and death are so similar. Maybe art, like people, cannot escape the conditions around it. To consider whether my father’s death was art might have been the ultimate unspeakable question, born of a system that crushed all logic… Perhaps they were all artists of memory.

I’d like to think we all carry with us a little piece of those we have lost. The Memory Artist makes that clear, and that it can impact us so much more than we realise. A kind of quiet, collective grief. Read this, especially if you are familiar with the context, if you love beautiful imagery, if you like books that make you ponder.

Amanda

On Primary School Confidential by Mrs Woog

I feel guilty admitting this, but I actually hadn’t heard of Mrs Woog until I listened to a podcast where she was being interviewed. I don’t have any children so I guess that’s as good an excuse as any! Still, I’m glad I listened, and I’m glad I made a quick reservation for her book at the library because I can happily say that now I’m a bit of a fan-girl.

Right from the first page of Private School Confidential, I knew it was going to be a romping great read. For starters it has a down-right Aussie accent. That’s a weird thing to write I know, and it’s not really something I have paid much attention to before. Maybe because I don’t read huge amounts of non-fiction. It was just so clear. It was like talking to a girlfriend on a Friday night at the local pub. I guess it’s that satirical, self-deprecating writing style that immediately makes you sit up and listen:

On the P&C:

The ideal P&C president should have a resume that includes the following; time spent working as a hostage negotiator for the federal police, experience in dealing with trolls on Facebook, previous dealings with the United Nations, at LEAST a brown belt in karate, superior finger-pointing skills… 

On the Kiss and Drop:

The ‘kiss and drop’ – boy that is a game-changer. Once you go there, you will never go back.

On extracurricular activities:

Think back to your own childhood. What did you do after school? I’ll bet it didn’t involve being ferried from pillar to post. Modern parents need to collectively calm the f**k down.

On Public vs. Private School:

None of the extracurricular activities and nice lawns provided by private schools will matter if your kid turns into an entitled pain in the whatsit.

The book is roughly in three parts; Mrs Woog’s experience at primary school growing up in a small town in New South Wales, her later experience as a primary school teacher, particularly in London, and then as a parent of primary school children. She details the ups and downs of school life hilariously, the kids, the mums, the food, the must-have toys. So much so that I found myself reading chapters aloud to my husband, and laughing out loud at the stories that took me back to my own school days, and the realities of working with children every day. There is a bit of a sad irony to much of the humour though, and it does make you reflect on the difficulties our educators must suffer. More respect to them, I say.

The book is a quick read, and broken into nifty little chapters that help you speed through, each anecdote entertaining and revealing. Definitely a must-read for those who work with children, those who have children and those who want them.

Amanda