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: The Good People by Hannah Kent

Hannah Kent is a name most Aussie readers would be more than familiar with. In fact, many readers around the world have read the incredible success story that was Hannah’s first novel, Burial Rites, published in 2013. So it was with some trepidation that I picked up her second novel, The Good People. Could she do it again? Could she weave another story with the same delicacy and skill of her previous novel? Surely it was such a pressure, such a weight on her shoulders.

From what I’ve read and heard, the idea for The Good People was sparked while Hannah was researching Burial Rites. She came across a little snippet of a news story about an Irish healing woman who had been charged with a terrible crime and acquitted because she believed the victim to be a changeling. In Irish folklore, a changeling is type of fairy.

The novel is set in 1825, in a small village on the Flesk River. It’s an interesting period in Ireland’s history, as Catholicism is becoming more and more dominant, and the old ways – those pagan rituals and laws – are being questioned by the church.

The story is woven around three main protagonists, Nance Roche, the village healing woman, Nora Leahy, a middle-aged villager, and Mary Clifford, a servant hired to help with Nora’s sickly grandchild. The child came into Nora’s care after her daughter’s death and while once a bonny lad, now, at the age of four he can’t speak or walk and generally shows the symptoms of a child with a severe disability.

So this is the fascinating premise of the book. Hannah Kent somehow makes it completely understandable that someone like Nora, faced with a disabled child, and without knowledge of modern medical practices,  would conclude her once happy and contented grandchild has been stolen by The Good People and replaced by a fairy changeling. She decides that banishing this changeling is the only way to get her true grandchild back. Why not? What else could possibly explain such a transformation? And isn’t there some degree of comfort in knowing it is in fact not your child, and that by conducting various rituals there is the possibility yours will be returned to you?

Hannah’s meticulous research has built a world full of vivid detail, crafting a story that opens a window into the past. You read slowly to savour each well-developed sentence, the immersive dialogue, the rich descriptions. You read to learn about life in that period, the hardships, the rituals, the community. The story doesn’t have the same building tension as Burial Rites, but it doesn’t seem to matter. Hannah is brimming with talent. Her writing style makes me think of Geraldine Brooks so if you’ve read one and not the other, you should definitely explore them further.

I can only think what a bright, brilliant star Hannah Kent is and how lucky we are that she calls Australia home. I can’t wait to see where she takes us next.

Amanda x

On Australian Women Writers. You are amazing.

You may have read that Jody’s going through a bit of a reading slump at the moment. Fortunately, while she is struggling, I’m devouring some of the best books I’ve read this year. Say goodbye to slump days, and hello long train and plane trips to nowhere, I say! Isn’t it just the best feeling when you have a long stretch of time to fill ahead of you and the book you’re reading makes it go by in a flash?

What really impressed me about the books I’ve been inhaling is they’re all Australian… and they’re all written by women. I know we’ve waxed lyrical many times about the quality of literature in this country but it continues to amaze me. This year I’ve really grown into a passionate advocate of Australian writing, with good reason.

So, with that in mind I signed up Jody and I to the Australian Women Writers Challenge, whereby we challenge ourselves to read a certain amount of works written by Australian women. Child’s play I say. Why didn’t we do this months ago, Jody says? We’ve already read SO many without even noticing! Out of all of the beautiful, astonishing, incredible books we’ve blogged about this year, by my (rough) calculations, at least half have been by Australian women. Helen Garner, Peggy Frew, Cath Crowley, Emily Maguire, Anita Heiss, Fiona Wright, Liane Moriarty, Sofie Laguna, Inga Simpson – the list goes on and on and on. And that’s only the tip, there are so many more we’ve read but not had time to review.

Is it Australia’s isolation from the rest of the world that makes for such diversity and quality among our female writers? Is it our education system? Is it the passion we have for our culture? Is it courage? It takes great courage to pick up the proverbial pen and write in a country that has such richness in landscape and story, and yet has an “ingrained, unconscious bias” against female writers.

I do know this: I am so proud of the literature produced by women in this country. I know some argue it could be more diverse. I know some argue it could better reflect the society we live in. But if you ask me, it’s getting there – you just need to know where to look. And apologies to those blokes out there, but I look to women.

I look to women because I feel their empathy. I look to women because I feel their passion. I look to women because they, and their characters, are vibrant and fierce and funny and kind. I look to women because I think we need a louder voice in this country and I know that voice can be found in literature. In the delicate, curious, exploration of our past, in the ardent advocacy of a different, more all-encompassing future. When they write, I listen. What they write, I learn from. So please, from one reader, from many readers – write more, and know that we are listening.

Amanda x

 

My TBR pile and hitting a reading slump

Well, it’s about time I contributed some content to our blog. I’m sure Amanda is starting to think she’s all alone with no one to help. My problem is I haven’t read anything in a few weeks. I’m really struggling to get excited by a new book and it’s starting to bother me – a lot.

I have books on my shelf I’ve been waiting to read. Some of them I even bought as soon as they were released, but now for some reason they’re just not grabbing me. So, to help me get reading again I decided to share with everyone a selection of books on my TBR pile. There are some great new releases and some old favourites just waiting to be read, and I have no idea why I don’t want to right now. Is anyone else suffering reader’s block?

The Girl in the Glass Tower by Elizabeth Fremantle

I loved the cover of this book so much I had to have it. And when I saw it’s set in Tudor England I was ecstatic because that is one of my favourite time periods. It tells the story of Arbella Stuart, niece to Mary Queen of Queen of Scots and presumed successor to Elizabeth I. She’s been in isolation for most of her life but as we all know, those close to the crown are never safe! I always find it interesting when someone whose life is so strictly controlled suddenly goes against the grain. I am hoping that’s what happens anyway!

The Joyce Girl by Annabel Abbs

I have been watching this book pop up again and again on social media and the premise is fascinating. It’s set in the late 1920s in Paris and it’s about James Joyce’s daughter Lucia. From what I understand, this is a fiction based on the few details known about Lucia’s life, who almost disappeared from history. Despite her talent and ambition she leads a tumultuous life, one that sounds entirely gripping.

America’s First Daughter by Stephanie Dray & Laura Kamoie

Obviously I was going through a bit of an historical fiction phase with these ones! This novel is set in America during the 18th Century, in particular the period when Thomas Jefferson is the American Minister to France. The protagonists are his 15 year old daughter, Patsy, and Sally Hemings, a slave girl of the same age. It’s been compared to Gone with the Wind, which is a big call but in my mind that makes it a must read.

Thunderlord by Marion Zimmer Bradley & Deborah J. Ross

The Darkover series by Marion Zimmer Bradley is one of my all time favourite series. Seriously. I’m always trying to get Amanda to pick these up. I own and have read every book in the series and I’ve enjoyed every one. What makes Marion Zimmer Bradley’s books stand out from others is the depth and nuance of the characters and the way she makes the world of Darkover and the people come to life. Thunderlord is a brand-new novel in the Darkover universe, written by collaborator Deborah J. Ross. Read it! Please! Then you can tell me how good it is and I will be inspired to pick it up!

A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth

I’ve read A Suitable Boy twice in the space of 15 years and thought it was about time to read it again. For a while there I was sure it was going to be the one to get me out of my slump. Some people might find this book a challenge at over 1300 pages but I promise you it really doesn’t seem that long when you are reading it. It’s truly an epic family saga at it’s best – a love story – a story of newly independent India and how Lata’s destiny is intertwined with that of her country.

Last Woman Hanged by Caroline Overington

What do you know…another history book! Australian this time. I’m really going around the world here. Caroline Overington is one of my favourite Australian authors and I’ve read every book she’s written. I was also lucky enough to meet her at an author talk we held at the library. The Last Woman Hanged was a book Caroline spoke passionately about writing and one I know I will enjoy. It’s the story of Louisa Collins, who went through four trials in the 1880’s before being found guilty of killing both her husbands with arsenic. I will never tire of Australian history!

Elianne by Judy Nunn

I’ve read The Ghan and Beneath the Southern Cross by Judy Nunn and I enjoyed both. They’re light reads often with a bit of a serious undertone and this one is set on a sugar cane plantation in Queensland.

I have to admit this is only a small selection of the books at the top of my TBR pile. Surely I should be able to find one here to get me back reading again. If anyone has any suggestions to help me pick up a book again, I’m keen to hear them!

Jody

Book Review: Wood Green by Sean Rabin

I found Wood Green by Sean Rabin on the Readings 2016 New Australian Fiction Shortlist. I have enormous respect for Readings as a bookstore chain, and admire their perseverance and success in this digital age. They employ passionate readers and their recommendations reflect that. This year they even won International Bookstore of the Year at the London Book Fair. Congratulations!

The shortlist was my first encounter with Wood Green. It’s published by Giramondo, an Australian publisher whose work focusses on the innovative and adventurous. Books that might not find a place in mainstream publishing. This is way outside my comfort zone. I tend to stick to books I know I will likely like, published by large publishers, destined to be commercially popular. Life is too short, after all.

Still, I’ve been challenging myself lately, exploring more literary, experimental styles. Life is to be lived, after all. Wood Green is definitely an exemplar of this.

To be honest, I don’t really know all the critiquing lingo. Actually, I’m not sure I know any lingo. But for starters, there aren’t any quotation marks in this book. It reads like an internal monologue and that’s cool and very effective in some respects. I’m told that’s very Cormac McCarthy-esque. To me it was curiously quiet, but at times I felt it got out of hand:

You don’t mind do you? They kept asking if they could pay you a visit, said Michael. Mind? With meatballs like these? said Lucian. See, I told you he’d love them, said Paul. I just thought it might be too early in the day, said Penny. Let’s have some music, said Maureen. To mountain climbers everywhere, said Paul. Cheers, said Michael. Cheers, said Maureen.

 And on, and on, and on. The book was unrelenting in its exploration of technique and style and I was surprised to find how much I loved that.

The story is equally unrelenting though and meanders with little narrative structure. It’s hard to figure out whether this is a thing of beauty, or the opposite. Seriously. I know. I’m being very vague but I’m still getting my head around this novel and it’s like an eel, the point just keeps slipping away.

Basically the plot goes something like this; Michael, a wannabe writer with a fear of flying, flies from Sydney to Tasmania and moves into a B&B with a quirky proprietor whose story never really plays out. Michael takes the position of a kind of biographer for the infamous local author Lucien Clarke. They smoke pot and explore music together and all the while Lucien is slowly losing his memory while Michael is putting together the pieces of his past and regaling them back to him. There are a flock of minor characters, not enough to truly round out the story, but enough to keep your interest.

Michael’s fear of flying is never really explored. In fact, most of his backstory isn’t explored. He just kind of pops up like a daisy, fully formed and yet with some minor defects.

And then it gets weirder. Seriously. I have no idea what was going on towards the end. Only, after a beautiful, well-developed setting, an eerily strange but compelling cast of characters, a sense of mystery, a well-developed sense of well – nothingness – just regular, run-of-the-mill life, it suddenly gets all sci-fi on you. I know I use the word nothingness and that is pretty strange, but the loveliness of this novel actually lies in the nothingness. In the lack of plot. In the silence of the landscape depicted through language. In the averageness of the characters. It was beautiful, until the last few chapters when it got weird. Really weird.

I’m honestly still confused by it. Is this brilliance? Is this the new landscape of Australian writing? Or is it just odd. I’m leaning towards odd. But maybe that’s just me.  And maybe that’s just fine, who isn’t a little quirky after all?

Amanda

Book Review: Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley

Sorry we didn’t post a review last week, I’ve been a bit under the weather. Wait. What does that even mean? Under the weather? Aren’t we always under the weather? Hm. A quick Google search reveals this:

The term is correctly ‘under the weather bow’ which is a gloomy prospect; the weather bow is the side upon which all the rotten weather is blowing.

Well. I’ve been under the weather bow and it has been unpleasant to say the least. My poor husband has certainly had his wedding vow tested over the past week! In sickness and in health, right?! And, to make matters worse, for some reason whenever I get sick, I can’t read. I just can’t stand the thought of skimming my eyes over the pages. It’s like a kind of vertigo. Does anyone else get like this?

The sky is looking brighter however, and I have to tell you about this fantastic book I just finished. It’s called Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley. Cath is an Aussie Young Adult author, particularly well known (to me at least) for her YA book Graffiti Moon, which came out a few years ago and received a whole host of accolades.

Words in Deep Blue is a love story (it even says so on the cover). But it certainly isn’t a traditional YA romance. It’s more of a love letter really. One long love letter to words and literature, to books, to family and friends. A loss letter too. The loss of a brother, the loss of a friendship, the loss of a place.

The story is told through Rachel and Henry, two late teens who grew up together before Rachel and her brother moved away. When Rachel’s brother dies, her outlook on life changes. She becomes afraid. Depressed. Sad. Distant. Everything she wasn’t. She returns to the city, to Howling Books – Henry’s family’s second hand bookshop – to try and piece her life together after she fails Year 12.

There’s a delicacy to this book that I didn’t expect and much of this is thanks to the Letter Library – a shelf of books in the bookstore which can be written in and where people leave letters to their loved ones. Entire conversations occur within the pages of these novels. It feels like a comment on the fragility of the online world and the permanence of print. I can see Letter Libraries popping up in second hand bookstores all around the world. I know I’m already wondering how we can incorporate one into the library.

This book really struck a chord with me. It’s lyrical and lovely, the words flowing across the page, the story coming to life so clearly. It’s full of whimsy and philosophy, full of little nods to great literature, all the while maintaining its modernity. It’s also an intelligent book, it doesn’t assume ignorance and naivety from the YA audience it seeks and I love that.

Perhaps Words In Deep Blue was exactly what I needed at this time. But perhaps it’s just a great read and I’d bank on that.

Amanda x

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