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

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: 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: Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms by Anita Heiss

Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms by Anita Heiss was just the book I needed to get me out of my reading slump! It was such a nice surprise to find it in the book shop. I had no idea Anita Heiss had a new book coming out and I’ve been meaning to read one of her books for a long time. I thought – why not start with the latest one?

Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms was a joy to read. I really enjoyed sharing Mary and Hiroshi’s beautiful story. 

5 AUGUST, 1944

Over 1000 Japanese soldiers break out of the No.12 Prisoner of War compound on the fringes of Cowra. In the carnage, hundreds are killed, many are recaptured, and some take their own lives rather than suffer the humiliation of ongoing defeat.

But one soldier, Hiroshi, manages to escape.

At nearby Erambie Station, an Aboriginal mission, Banjo Williams, father of five and proud man of his community, discovers Hiroshi, distraught and on the run. Unlike most of the townsfolk who dislike and distrust the Japanese, the people of Erambie choose compassion and offer Hiroshi refuge. Mary, Banjo’s daughter, is intrigued by the softly spoken stranger, and charged with his care.

For the community, life at Erambie is one of restriction and exclusion – living under Acts of Protection and Assimilation, and always under the ruthless eye of the mission Manager. On top of wartime hardships, families live without basic rights.

Love blossoms between Mary and Hiroshi, and they each dream of a future together. But how long can Hiroshi be hidden safely and their bond kept a secret?

There was so much to enjoy about this book. Mary and Hiroshi’s story was just one part. There was also the insight into the Aboriginal people of the time, how they lived, the attitude towards them and their stories. While I found this all fascinating, I also felt sick to my stomach at the injustice of it all.

I also found it interesting to read about the Japanese people, their culture and involvement in the Second World War.

Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms is beautifully woven Australian historical fiction. I felt a huge sense of loss when I read the last page; I just wanted more! Even now days after finishing it I still feel the need to be a part of Mary and the Wiradjuri peoples lives.

I would love for someone else to pick up this book and enjoy it like I did.

Jody