27.2.15

The Strays

The Strays by Emily Bitto

Evan Trentham is the wild child of the Melbourne art world of the 1930s. He and his captivating wife, Helena, attempt to carve out their own small niche, to escape the stifling conservatism they see around them, by gathering together other like-minded artists. They create a Utopian circle within their family home, offering these young artists a place to live and work, and the mixed benefits of being associated with the infamous Evan. 

At the periphery of this circle is Lily Struthers, the best friend of Evan and Helena's daughter Eva. Lily is infatuated by the world she bears witness to, and longs to be part of this enthralling makeshift family. As Lily observes years later, looking back on events that she still carries painfully within her, the story of this groundbreaking circle involved the same themes as Evan Trentham's art: Faustian bargains and terrible recompense; spectacular fortunes and falls from grace. Yet it was not Evan, nor the other artists he gathered around him, but his own daughters, who paid the debt that was owing.

I really enjoyed the story and characters, in particular the friendships between the girls. The discussions about new and frantic creativity brought an energy and excitement to the story which, for the time, was right at the forefront for art. The story is most likely inspired by the Melbourne art scenes of the time. A great read. 

Ali

26.2.15

The Girl on the Train

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

From the cover:  Rachel takes the same commuter train every morning. Every day she rattles down the track, flashes past a stretch of cozy suburban homes, and stops at the signal that allows her to daily watch the same couple breakfasting on their deck. She’s even started to feel like she knows them. “Jess and Jason,” she calls them. Their life—as she sees it—is perfect. Not unlike the life she recently lost.
And then she sees something shocking. It’s only a minute until the train moves on, but it’s enough. Now everything’s changed. Unable to keep it to herself, Rachel offers what she knows to the police, and becomes inextricably entwined in what happens next, as well as in the lives of everyone involved. Has she done more harm than good?"

This is a debut novel by a former journalist. Rachel witnesses something on her daily train journey, but with a history of alcoholism, a broken marriage, a lost job, who possibly would believe her? You hear the individual stories of the key characters in the book and how they are all linked into the disappearance of Megan, whose story begins one year before Rachel's. 

I must admit, initially it was a little confusing with the dates interspersed throughout the story, but you have to just go with it, all will be revealed! Megan's story seems to move quickly forward, while Rachel's, very slowly. I thought they were a perfect analogy for two trains on different tracks, bound to converge at some point along the way. And they do. 

Megan goes missing on a day Rachel has drunk herself into a blackout. What has happened to Megan and what does her story have to do with not only Rachel herself, but also her fantasy story of the perfect couple? Also, what about Rachel's ex-husband and his new wife who just happen to live five houses away, how have they become linked? You can't help but get involved in the individual character's lives and develop some empathy for them.

This is definitely a thriller that kept me moving quickly through the pages once the pace picked up. Think Gone Girl crossed with Rear Window!! It's no surprise that this book has already been optioned for a film version.

Janine

25.2.15

When the Night Comes

When the Night Comes by Favel Parrett

When the Night Comes tells the story of a young girl learning what is important in life and who to trust; and of a crewman on the Antarctic supply ship, the Nella Dan, a modern Viking searching to understand his past and find a place in this world for himself. When their paths cross, he teaches her the gift of stillness, of watching birds and shares tales of sailing south to the ice. She shows him what is missing in his life. Though their time together is cut short, the small gifts have been enough to set her path towards the sea. And maybe what they give to each other will mean they can both eventually find their way home.

Bo is a cook on the 'Nella Dan' while Isla and her brother have moved from the mainland to Tasmania with their mother for a 'better' life. It’s obvious there is a romantic relationship between Isla’s mother and Bo, but the real story focuses on the connection between Bo and Isla. 

The actual timeline of the story is brief - two summers. When the Night Comes is not a plot-driven story. The tension is understated. Emotion is the main focus. Parrett's characters are living, breathing, feeling human beings laid out on the page in a way that reminds the reader that the smallest happening can sometimes have the largest impact. 

It is said that everyone who enters your life is either there for a reason, a season, or a lifetime. Bo opened up the world for Isla. He helped her to dream big dreams and to be unafraid of following them. Isla helped Bo realise that he wanted to have a family of his own and to raise them where he was raised, to share the traditions and experiences his father shared with him. The lives of these two characters were made better by simply knowing one another.

The writing is lyrical, soulful, real. Parett’s storytelling is gentle, yet masterful, with its ability to draw you in so deeply with very little going on.

Lisa

ED: This is an abridged version of Lisa's review.  You can read the full review at
http://lisa-wardle.blogspot.com    
Lisa's poetry and stories have been published in various literary magazines and journals. Her short story collection "Reflections" was published in Dec 2009 by Ginninderra Press.

24.2.15

The Anniversary Man

The Anniversary Man by R.J. Ellory

From the cover:  John Costello and girlfriend Nadia became victims of the deranged "Hammer of God" killer who terrorized Jersey City throughout the summer of 1984. This murderer went after young courting couples in an attempt to "save their souls." Nadia was killed, but John survived. Physically and psychologically scarred, he withdrew from society and now only emerges to work as a crime researcher for a major newspaper. No one in New Jersey knows more about serial killers than John Costello. So, when a new spate of murders starts - all seemingly random and unrelated - he is the only one who can discern the pattern that lies behind them. But could this dark knowledge threaten his own life?

This book is definitely in the suspense genre, but thriller it’s not. It’s so long and drawn out that you have to wait quite a while for the aforementioned suspense to kick in, but when it does, it packs a whallop.  It's also different; it’s gritty, and to my mind, more realistic than a lot of crime fiction which can be a bit too slick with relationships that work out, murderers all explained and nice pat endings tidied up and pigeonholed.  This police department is overworked, understaffed, hamstrung by politics and mayoral elections.  Our lead detective Ray Irving is frustrated, exhausted, still missing his significant other who passed away more than a year ago, sad, lonely and depressed with the lack of progress in identifying the serial killer that is playing games with him.  

I did read an interesting review that said Ellory, an award-nominated English thriller writer, is out of his comfort zone by setting this story in New York, Manhattan to be exact.  It mentioned the feeling of Ellory seemingly working his way through the Manhattan ‘Melway’ and that’s pretty much spot on. There are so many street references, it drives you nuts!!  

I listened to The Anniversary Man on Playaway and it is deftly narrated by Kyle Riley but we also have this in hard copy, large print and CD audio.   If you can stick with the almost 80 chapters, it is worth it.  Take note:  there is some full-on language and some graphic murder scenes, so it’s not a novel for the fair-weather crime reader. 
Deb

23.2.15

Outback Dreams

Outback Dreams by Rachael Johns


Faith Forrester is at a crossroads. Single, thirty and living on a farm in a small Western Australian town, she’s sick of being treated like a kitchen slave by her brother and father. Ten years ago, her mother died of breast cancer, and Faith has been treading water ever since. 

For as long as he can remember, Daniel ‘Monty’ Montgomery has been Faith’s best friend. When he was ten, his parents sold the family property and moved to Perth, and ever since, Monty’s dreamed of having his own farm. So for the last ten years, he’s been back on the land, working odd jobs and saving every dollar to put toward his dream. 

So when Faith embarks on a mission to raise money for a charity close to her heart, and Monty’s dream property comes on the market, things seem like they are falling into place for them both. Until a drunken night out ends with them sleeping together. Suddenly, the best friends are faced with a new load of challenges...

I don't usually read rural romances as I was disappointed with the first one by another Australian author, but this time I was pleasantly surprised after being lucky enough to receive a signed copy from Rachael herself! 

The story of Faith and Monty was good, and yes, it is a romance, but the story itself had a lot more substance to it. As well as getting into both sides of their families, I thought the autism storyline was very refreshing. I also liked the fact that it was not too predictable - just when you thought they were going to live happily ever after something happened!

The author now has two more books about the residents of Bunyip Bay and I'm hoping that Faith and Monty make an appearance in these too.

Janine

20.2.15

Are You Seeing Me?

Are You Seeing Me? by Darren Groth

Twins Justine and Perry are about to embark on the road trip of a lifetime in the Pacific Northwest. It's been a year since they watched their dad lose his battle with cancer. Now, at only nineteen, Justine is the sole carer for her disabled brother. But with Perry having been accepted into an assisted-living residence, their reliance on each other is set to shift. Before they go their separate ways, they're seeking to create the perfect memory. For Perry, the trip is a glorious celebration of his favourite things: mythical sea monsters, Jackie Chan movies and the study of earthquakes. For Justine, it's a chance to reconcile the decision to 'free' her twin, to see who she is without her boyfriend, Marc - and to offer their mother the chance to atone for past wrongs. But the instability that has shaped their lives will not subside, and the seismic event that Perry forewarned threatens to reduce their worlds to rubble...

I was such a fan of Kindling that I was automatically interested in reading Are You Seeing Me? I was not disappointed.  The author's use of the twin's father’s letters and journal add an extra layer to this dual narrator story, and the theme of independence is a big one. 

During their trip, Perry predicts an earthquake and his prediction comes true. Justine is hurt during the earthquake. She isn’t breathing. Perry, rather than melting down in this high stress situation and failing to function, revives Justine using CPR and gets the help of a stranger to get her to the hospital. These are things he would normally have problems with, things Justine would never expect him to be able to deal with on his own, but he does.  

Perry has far more self-awareness and empathy than those around him can understand. There is a difference with being independent and being interdependent. Independence suggests you do everything for yourself without the need for assistance. Interdependence is the skill of being able to ask for the help you need when you need it. I believe this is far more important and Perry proved he is capable of doing just that. He saved his sister’s life. She has to respect and admire him for that. He is not the ’little’ brother she’s always taken care of anymore, he’s much more than that. He’s a man.

Groth has created a story with heart. Family is the main focus, but in particular, forgiveness.

Lisa

ED: This is an abridged version of Lisa's review.  You can read the full review at
http://lisa-wardle.blogspot.com    
Lisa's poetry and stories have been published in various literary magazines and journals. Her short story collection "Reflections" was published in Dec 2009 by Ginninderra Press.


19.2.15

What Came Before

What Came Before by Anna George

From the cover: David sits in his car, sick to his stomach and barely able to order his thoughts, but determined to record his statement of events. His wife, Elle, hovers over her lifeless body as it lies on the laundry floor of the house they shared. David thinks back on their relationship - intimate, passionate, intense - and what led to this violent endpoint. Elle traces their shared past as well and her version of events gradually reveals how wrong she was about the man she'd loved.

Although this novel has a grim beginning, I found it to be a fascinating and compelling read.

What Came Before is set in the inner western suburbs of Melbourne and revisits the early days of the relationship of scriptwriter/director Elle and solicitor David. It is a passionate relationship that descends fairly quickly into domestic violence. The author has used the unusual technique of one character narrating from the afterlife while hovering over her battered body on the laundry floor.

The novel gives a remarkable insight into this intimate relationship and enables the reader to get a better understanding of how these situations are never black and white. It can happen to anybody. Abuse is not always physical. And it's not just a matter of leaving - it often takes several attempts to make the break.

The passionate nature of the relationship between Elle and David reminded me a little of Amy and Nick's connection in Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl - although thankfully neither character is as warped or manipulative.

What Came Before was one of 10 Victorian books selected for The Summer Read, an initiative of the State Library of Victoria.


Sandra E

18.2.15

Love in the Time of Contempt

Love in the Time of Contempt by Joanne Fedler

Welcome to the world of parenting teens. This new era is about enduring intermittent bouts of contempt and not taking it personally. It's about picking the fights that are worth having because through them your kids get to know who you are as a person, what you stand for and what you won't tolerate. Love in the Time of Contempt is not a how-to manual on parenting 13-19 year-olds. It is a gritty look at the day-to-day interactions with teenagers in which Joanne Fedler takes us on a journey from frustration, to confusion, to elation and back again.

Joanne Fedler's latest offering is part pep-talk, part personal memoir and an open invitation to consider yourself a part of the club devoted to the 'Raising of Teenagers'.

The book can be enjoyed from many points of view; that of the parent in the midst of raising teens, that of the parent who is done with that particular challenge, and that of the parent (or non-parent) remembering their own teenaged years. The stories in this book can't help but jog your memory about your own behaviour during those tumultuous years, and your feelings about your parents at the time. 

Fedler's writing is honest, humorous, and insightful. She shares her experiences generously, without being didactic. With warmth and a touch of irony she gives the reader that sense of solidarity and support that, during what is often one of the most difficult stages of parenting, we are not alone. In the end we are all in this together. As parents, we just have to do the best we know how to do, learning on-the-job, while staying open and available to our teenagers. 

I highly recommend Love in the Time of Contempt.

Lisa

ED: This is an abridged version of Lisa's review.  You can read the full review at
http://lisa-wardle.blogspot.com
Lisa's poetry and stories have been published in various literary magazines and journals. Her short story collection "Reflections" was published in Dec 2009 by Ginninderra Press.

17.2.15

He Who Must Be Obeid

He Who Must Be Obeid by Kate McClymont & Linton Besser

There is something about a court case followed by the withdrawal and pulping of a book which instantly arouses interest. Add to that the name of Eddie Obeid, easily the name most likely to invoke adjectives like “corrupt”, “sleazy” and “criminal”, and how could anyone resist this tale of a megalomaniac’s fall from power? 


This book first appeared in August 2014 and was quickly recalled and pulped by the publisher due to legal action taken on behalf of the Obeid family. It has now been re-edited and tightened up to eliminate a defamation case, but it still packs a wallop.  It tells how Eddie Obeid rose from his poor immigrant Lebanese background to be a kingmaker of NSW politics, appointing and sacking Premiers at will and enriching his family’s coffers by millions of dollars in the process. What is just as tantalising is the long list of names cropping up along the way – Graham Richardson, Rene Rivkin, Morris Iemma, Carl Bitar, Arthur Sinodinos and many more - all were somehow involved with this sordid passage which was ultimately brought to a stop by the investigations of the NSW ICAC, investigations which are still not over. Criminal charges are forthcoming for a number of specific offences, and Eddie may yet end up in jail.

This story is long, involved and complicated, but truly riveting and begs the question: “Is there any such thing as an honest politician?”

Teresa

16.2.15

Flipping Out

Flipping Out by Marshall Karp

From the cover:  Bestselling mystery author Nora Bannister has found herself a very lucrative sideline, house-flipping. Along with a group of female friends, she buys a run-down house in Los Angeles, and while her business partners turn it into a show home, Nora makes it the scene of a grisly murder in her latest bestselling series - A House to Die For.  It seems people are only too happy to live in a house where someone has died a violent death – in fiction at least.  But, much to the horror or Nora and her pals, a series of real murders starts taking place.

Just when it all became so obvious, things in this somewhat quirky whodunit took a left turn at Albuquerque and the blurb above became something entirely different. Instead of house renovating, writing bestsellers and murder, it became kidney harvesting, illegal Mexican immigrants, and cops and the D.A’s office!

This is quite a complex story and I had to rewind the Playaway a couple of times thinking maybe I’d missed something, but I hadn’t.  It would make a good tv show as it has a bit of everything in it, all underpinned with some snappy banter and humour to keep things humming along nicely.  Well narrated by John Chancer in LA cop/Mexican/Latino/Irish Catholic/male and female character voices, I’d recommend this if you’re looking for something a bit left field in the crime genre.  
Deb.
PS - This is one of a series featuring the two detectives, Lomax & Biggs. 



13.2.15

Stella Prize longlist


The Stella Prize celebrates Australian women’s contribution to literature. It was awarded for the first time in 2013 to Carrie Tiffany for Mateship with Birds. In 2014, the winner was Clare Wright for The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka. The prize is worth $50,000, and both fiction and nonfiction books are eligible for entry.  The longlisted books are: 

Foreign Soil by Maxine Beneba Clarke
The Strays by Emily Bitto
Only the Animals by Ceridwen Dovey
This House of Grief by Helen Garner
Golden Boys by Sonya Hartnett
The Invisible History of the Human Race by Christine Kenneally
The Eye of the Sheep by Sofie Laguna 
The Golden Age by Joan London
Laurinda by Alice Pung
Nest by Inga Simpson 
Heat and Light by Ellen van Neerven
In My Mother's Hands by Biff Ward

The shortlist will be announced on March 12 and the winner on April 21.

Deb. 

12.2.15

The Memory Book

The Memory Book by Rowan Coleman

From the cover:  The name of your first-born. The face of your lover. Your age. Your address … What would happen if your memory of these began to fade?  When Claire starts to write her Memory Book, she already knows that this scrapbook of mementoes will soon be all her daughters and husband have of her.  But how can she hold onto the past when her future is slipping through her fingers?

I borrowed this Playaway as an antidote to reading too much murder and mayhem and I couldn’t have chosen anything better. In fact, this may well be my Read of the Year, so touching and memorable was it.   

The publisher blurb sounded like it was going to be upsetting but it didn’t say how funny and clever it would be.  Nor did it indicate how the author presents a genuine understanding of a marriage where a husband and wife truly share a deep love; nor what an eye opener it is into Early Onset Alzheimer’s. It is a disease I knew nothing about before this book and can now appreciate how utterly terrifying and soul destroying it is. 

Set in the UK, the story is told from the position of the main players – mother-of-two, Claire, who is suffering the disease; her husband Greg; the eldest daughter, Caitlyn; and Claire’s mother, Ruth.  The audio version utilises the wonderful talents of four narrators who bring the characters so realistically to life, you feel you personally know them.   

This book is heart achingly wonderful.  Yes you will cry, and yes, you will laugh, and at the end of it, you will quite possibly want to make a memory book of your own for your family.   

Deb.

11.2.15

To Say Nothing of the Dog

To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis 

Sustainability is all about making small changes now, to create a different, improved future. But what would happen if you went back in time and made changes? Could there be unintended consequences?

Connie Willis, winner of multiple Hugo and Nebula awards for science fiction, deftly weaves time travel and history into highly entertaining novels. This story in her "Oxford Time Travel" series re-introduces her main characters as well as some new ones. They are history students at Oxford University in the mid 21st century who study history by travelling back in time to see how it all really happened. 

It opens with the students travelling back to Victorian England to research Coventry Cathedral. Mishaps occur, threatening the "space time continuum" (remember "Back to the future" with Michael J. Fox?), and our characters continually strive to avoid making social faux pas which would reveal them as imposters.

This book is a gem - it is a blend of history, science fiction, Shakespearean mis-matched romance, and an Oscar Wilde satire. Although the book is considered "science fiction", if you are not a fan of the genre, please don't be put off. The historical settings are well researched and quite believable. 

Also recommended are the other books in the Oxford Time Travel series: The Doomsday Book (set in medieval Europe), Blackout and its sequel All Clear (set in London during the blitz), and her first story, Firewatch, which introduces the main characters.

Kim


9.2.15

The Book of the Dead

The Book of the Dead by Greig Beck


From the cover: Massive sinkholes are opening across the country, each larger and deeper than the previous one. Anyone living near one of the pits is reporting strange phenomena –  vibrations, sulphurous odours and strange sounds rising up from the stygian depths and the family pets go missing. Then come the reports of horrifying ‘things’ rising from the darkness.

When the people start disappearing the government is forced to act. A team is sent in to explore one of the holes – and all hell breaks loose – the Old Ones are rising up again.

From the war zones of the Syrian Desert, to the fabled Library of Alexandria, and then to Hades itself, join Professor Matt Kearns as he searches for the fabled Al Azif, known as the Book of the Dead. He must unravel an age-old prophecy, and stop Beings from a time even before the primordial ooze seeking once again to claim the planet as their own. Time is running out, for Matt, and all life on Earth.

I wish had known right up front rather than an end note that this book is in homage to the disturbed and ultimately tragic author, H. P. Lovecraft.  Lovecraft created most of the disgusting creatures in this book, including the massive ‘slug with an octopus head and wings of a dragon’ Cthulhu and its minions, the Shoggoths, way back in the early 20th century*.  Greig Beck has reincarnated them in 2015, with two of his own recurring characters, the quite delicious Professor Matt Kearns, and the not so delicious Mossad agent, Adira Sanesh.  As per usual, sundry bad guys and military types make up the rest of the cast and Sean Mangan delivers a first-class narration.

I love most of Beck’s books, they are not my usual fare and have me on tenterhooks sometimes, a bit like watching a scary movie where you don’t want to look but know you will.  His writing grabbed me from the first – Beneath the Dark Ice was an excellent ice-breaker, pun intended, and the others that followed stamped his mastery in a complex genre that melds suspense thriller, supernatural, high-tech military, ancient history, geo-political, biological science and a touch of romance into one page-turning pot boiler.

The Book of the Dead unfortunately fell more into the horror genre, which was disappointing; it was barbaric, gory and bleak.   If it was made clear at the very beginning that this is some kind of ‘tribute novel’, perhaps I wouldn’t have felt so let down.  

I for one will be looking forward to when Greig Beck, the fan, gets back to being Greig Beck, the author, creating more from his own mind rather than regurgitating someone else’s characters and trying to fit his around them.  If you want to see the author firing on all cylinders, check out the brilliant The First Bird Trilogy.    
Deb.  

* It has been noted that some of Lovecraft's work was inspired by his own nightmares – unsurprising as his Grandfather would regale gothic horror stories when he was only a small boy; and that his most significant literary influence was Edgar Allan Poe. Lovecraft once wrote about visiting New York:   "...  I had looked for poignant wonder and inspiration ... I had found instead only a sense of horror and oppression which threatened to master, paralyze, and annihilate me".  It was around this time he wrote the outline for "The Call of Cthulhu" with its theme of the insignificance of all humanity.   Howard Phillips Lovecraft died penniless, age 46, in 1937.

6.2.15

Useful

Useful by Debra Oswald

You might expect that a book written by the creator of the TV series “Offspring” would be funny, quirky and downright enjoyable.  You’d be right.  It is all of these things and more.
“Useful” follows the story of Sullivan Moss.  

After deciding that he’s a complete waste of space, Sully manages to fall the wrong way from a ledge while trying to commit suicide.  Waking up in hospital, he’s astounded at the care of the nurses being wasted on a useless person such as himself.  With this thought, he realises that while he might be useless, his organs aren’t. Unfortunately for Sully, the process of donating a kidney is a bit more involved than walking into the Urology Department and asking them to take a kidney.

Embarking on what may be a year long journey to become a kidney donor, Sully does what he can to ensure good kidney health.  This not only means being sober, but being employed for the first time in his life, because kidneys can’t support themselves.

Full of relatable characters, budding romance, blossoming friendships and laugh out loud moments “Useful” is a book that ended far too quickly for my liking; I would have quite happily kept reading about Sully and his new friends for months.  There are no fairy tale endings for any of the characters in the book, but as in real life, there rarely are.

Leanne

5.2.15

Secrets of Midwives

The Secrets of Midwives by Sally Hepworth

Neva Bradley, a third generation midwife, is determined to keep the details surrounding her own pregnancy - including the identity of the baby’s father - hidden from her family and co-workers for as long as possible. Her mother, Grace, finds it impossible to let this secret rest. For Floss, Neva’s grandmother and a retired midwife, Neva’s situation thrusts her back 60 years in time to a secret that eerily mirrors her granddaughter’s - a secret which, if revealed, will have life-changing consequences for them all.

In a family of midwives, babies are brought into the world and secrets surface. But are some secrets best kept hidden? "

I knew nothing about this book until it was recommended to me. The stories of the three generations of midwives are fascinating, and the story is told by alternating narratives by the three main characters. I found each of the characters totally believable and its hard not to get involved in their stories. There is a little bit of everything in this novel - romance, secret lives, a death and babies being born. It will appeal to readers of women's contemporary fiction. It was an easy and most enjoyable read.

Janine


4.2.15

The Heineken Story

The Heineken Story: the remarkably refreshing tale of the beer that conquered the world, by Barbara Smit


Taking us on a journey from a small family brewery in Amsterdam in 1864 to the present day, The Heineken Story tells the remarkable and sometimes controversial true story of one of the world's largest brewing companies, and of Alfred 'Freddy' Heineken, the singular businessman who secured its position. 

From spectacular takeovers and inspired marketing campaigns, to a kidnapping that brought in the largest ransom ever paid for an individual, this is a gripping account of the battle for the international beer market. 

I was attracted to this book for two reasons: I am married to a beer connoisseur, and the words “famous kidnapping” in the summary on the back of the book intrigued me. 

As I had not known that the owner of one of the world’s biggest companies was kidnapped in 1983 and an enormous ransom of 15 million euros paid for his release, I thought the story was worth investigating. I was not disappointed as the transformation of the Heineken company from a small family brewery in Amsterdam in 1864 into today’s multibillion dollar multinational business is fascinating. Full of takeovers, marketing campaigns and corporate skulduggery, the Heineken story is enthralling, even if you don’t know the difference between a Carlsberg and a Budweiser.

Cheers,
Teresa 


3.2.15

The Dressmaker

The Dressmaker by Kate Alcott


From the cover: A spirited woman survives the sinking of the Titanic only to find herself embroiled in the tumultuous aftermath of that great tragedy. Tess is one of the last people to escape into a lifeboat. When an enterprising reporter turns her employer, Lady Duff Gordon, into an object of scorn, Tess is torn between loyalty and the truth.

I wasn't particularly keen to relive this maritime tragedy having seen Leonardo Di Caprio's Titanic one too many times. However, thankfully, the actual tragedy is just briefly covered in Chapter 2. The bulk of The Dressmaker focuses on its aftermath.

The story centres around Tess Collins, an ambitious young woman, who manages to secure her passage on the Titanic as a personal maid to Lady Duff Gordon, a world-famous dress designer and a real figure in the tragedy. Luckily, being on the first-class deck, they both made it onto lifeboats. Lady Duff Gordon's boat, containing just 12 people, became known as The Millionaires Boat, and a topic of much debate during inquiries.

The author, a Washington journalist, made use of real testimony from the transcripts of the US Senate hearings that were held immediately following the disaster. Kate Alcott's story focuses on a puzzle at the heart of this tragedy: why did only one lifeboat go back after the ship went down and make an attempt to save those dying in the water? Her plucky character Pinky Wade, a female journalist at the New York Times, adds a spark to the story and gives an insight into the workings of a newsroom in 1912. I enjoyed this aspect of the story as Pinky struggles to care for her ailing father, cover the big stories of the day, and fight for equal pay.

As the truth about the tragedy is slowly revealed, Tess is forced to choose between her mentor and her conscience. She also has romantic decisions that need to be made, with two very different suitors pursuing her.

The Dressmaker's fashion focus gives it wide appeal but the novel does explore some serious dilemmas. What would you have done? Would you have left your husband on board to die while you jumped on a lifeboat? Would you have risked capsizing your lifeboat to drag drowning people from the sea? What defines a coward or a hero?

Sandra E

2.2.15

The Killer Next Door

The Killer Next Door by Alex Marwood

From the cover:  No. 23 has a secret. In this gloomy, bedsit-riddled south London wreck, lorded over by a lecherous landlord, a horrifying collection quietly waits to be discovered. Yet all six residents have something to hide.

Collette is on the run from her ex-boss; Cher is an under-age children’s-home escapee; while a gorgeous Iranian asylum seeker and a ‘quiet man’ nobody sees try to keep themselves hidden. And there for them all is Vesta, a woman who knows everything that goes on in the house – or thought she did.

Then in the dead of the night, a terrible accident pushes the neighbours into an uneasy alliance. But one of them is a killer, expertly hiding their pastime, all the while closing in on the next victim….

It is easy to feel for the residents of No. 23 Beulah Grove. As the plot exposes how many lonely individuals can fall through the cracks, ending up alone, friendless, with no family and no hope. Alex Marwood goes to a lot of trouble to ensure the reader has a deep understanding of each resident and what they have to hide, but without giving away who the murderer is.

It is a compelling thriller webbed with disturbing and even horrifying content. Each character is rich with social disquiet and trust issues. And this was before they all found out that one of them was in fact a serial killer. A serial killer with an interest in Egyptian embalming techniques!

I found this book a real page-turner and was engrossed from start to finish. For those who enjoy psychological thrillers this is worth a read. It would be of interest to readers who enjoy authors like Mo Hayder and Ruth Rendell.

~ Narelle

30.1.15

Vale Colleen McCullough

Vale Colleen McCullough:  The larger-than-life popular author passed away yesterday, Thursday 29 January, in a Norfolk Island hospital.

Initially wanting to be a doctor, an allergy to the antiseptic soap used in surgery saw her switch to neuroscience. Colleen then worked in the Royal North Shore Hospital, Sydney and the Great Ormond Street Hospital in London, UK before moving to the USA as a teacher and researcher in neurology at Yale Medical School. She starting fiction writing while there, first coming to notice with her book Tim which was made into a movie starring Mel Gibson.  She then followed up with The Thorn Birds in 1977 which went on to sell around 30 million copies worldwide and was made into a TV series starring Richard Chamberlain, Bryan Brown and Rachel Ward.

Her success allowed her to concentrate on writing fulltime, and after marrying Ric Robinson, a descendant of original Norfolk Island settlers, they moved to the Island permanently where she wrote continuously for decades, producing such varying works like love stories - An Indecent Obsession and The Ladies of Missalonghi; the post-apocalyptic A Creed for the Third Millennium; a seven-novel series - Masters of Rome; a biography of NSW governor, Sir Roden Cutler; and five stories featuring Carmine Delmonico, an American small town detective.  Her last work was published in 2013 - Bittersweet, a 1920-30s saga about two sets of twins.

Shona Martyn, Publishing Director, says, ‘For all of us at HarperCollins it was a privilege to work with Col. Her determination to keep writing (via dictation) despite a string of challenging health and eyesight problems was an inspiration. Ever quick-witted and direct, we looked forward to her visits from Norfolk Island and to the arrival of each new manuscript delivered in hard copy in custom-made maroon manuscript boxes inscribed with her name! We will miss her dearly. The world is a less colourful place without Col.

Deb. 

29.1.15

Victorian Premier's Awards

The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards were inaugurated by the Victorian Government in 1985 to honour literary achievement by Australian writers. The Awards are administered by the Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas on behalf of the Premier of Victoria, and are in the following categories.  The winners are:

$25,000 The Prize for Fiction - To Name Those Lost by Rohan Wilson 
$25,000 The Prize for Non-fiction - The Europeans in Australia: Volume Three: Nation by Alan Atkinson 
$25,000 The Prize for Drama - Resplendence by Angus Cerini 
$25,000 The Prize for Poetry - The Beautiful Anxiety by Jill Jones 
$25,000 The Prize for Writing for Young Adults -  The Protected by Claire Zorn

The winners of these five categories contested the Victorian Prize for Literature – worth $100,000 - and the award went to non-fiction prize winner, Sydney historian Alan Atkinson. 

People’s Choice:  Where Song Began by Tim Low

Deb

28.1.15

Dreams of The Good Life

Dreams of The Good Life: the life of Flora Thompson and the creation of Lark Rise to Candleford by Richard Mabey

This is the story of the author who wrote the English literature classic Lark Rise to Candleford. Unfortunately she is far less renowned than her crowning achievement! 

While Flora Thompson's much-loved portrait of life in the nineteenth-century countryside has inspired a hit television series, relatively little is known about the author herself. 

In this highly original book, bestselling biographer and nature writer Richard Mabey sympathetically retraces her life and her transformation from a post-office clerk who left school at fourteen to a sophisticated professional writer. Mabey shows how her legacy emerged from the creative tension between two different dreams of the good life. While her work's appeal comes from her commemoration of the virtues of traditional village life, just when these values were being eroded by the advance of urbanisation, her own history consisted chiefly of an escape from this culture and a hunger to become a different kind of person, a writer with her sights on the skies. Above all, this book helps us understand how the creation of a formidable imagination can arise from the humblest of beginnings.

Fans of the series Lark Rise to Candleford or those who have read the books might enjoy this biography of Flora Thompson who wrote the original books.   Lark Rise is about village life in England in time of change, the rural life that many saw as a simpler time.  Mabey tells of Flora’s escape from this life and her transformation from a working class girl to a professional writer. Mabey is a naturalist and biographer who does a great job telling this story.  

Fay

27.1.15

A Week in Winter

A Week in Winter by Maeve Binchy

From the catalogue:  Stoneyville is a small town on the coast of Ireland where all the families know each other. When Chicky decides to take an old decaying mansion, Stone House, and turn it into a restful place for a holiday by the sea, the town thinks she is crazy. She is helped by Rigger- a bad boy turned good who is handy around the place, and her niece Orla, a whiz at business. Finally the first week of paying guests arrive: John, the American movie star thinks he has arrived incognito; Winnie and Lillian, forced into taking a holiday together; Nicola and Henry, husband and wife, both doctors who have been shaken by seeing too much death; Anders, the Swedish boy, hates his father's business, but has a real talent for music; Miss Nell Howe, a retired school teacher, who criticizes everything and leaves a day early, much to everyone's relief; the Walls who have entered in 200 contests (and won everything from a microwave oven to velvet curtains, including the week at Stone House); and Freda, the psychic who is afraid of her own visions; and others. You will laugh and cry as you spend the week with this odd group who share their secrets and might even have some of their dreams come true.
  
The literary world took a huge hit when it lost one of Ireland’s best and most beloved authors, Maeve Binchy.  This book was her last before she passed away in July 2012.   Binchy wrote with warmth about locations she knew best and populated them with a mix of characters – one of her most-loved writing traits.

It’s been years since I read a Binchy novel and I did enjoy meeting her people with their all-too-human flaws. And I loved the landscape - the crashing Atlantic sea on the rocks below the hotel, the seabirds and the rugged walks, while inside the warmth of the fire, Gloria the kitten curled up and the homely kitchen beckon.  But the way this book was constructed was like slamming two different novels into one, bang, then publishing it!

The first half concentrated on Chicky Starr, her story, and how she forged the decrepit Stone House into a warm and welcoming hotel by the sea.  The second half tells all the individual stories of each guest and how they come to be there during the opening week. The tenses were different, the voice was different, and that’s where it lost a lot of charm for me.

Narrated by the talented Caroline Lennon, her delightfully lilting Irish accent complemented the book beautifully so I can recommend the audio version for those who just simply want to lose themselves in the last novel from the Binchy pen.

We have this book in hard copy, large print, Playaway and CD formats.

Deb.

26.1.15

Nancy Wake

Nancy Wake: a biography of our greatest war heroine by Peter FitzSimons

Australia Day...  and a fitting time for a book review of Australia's most decorated* World War II heroine - the legendary Nancy Wake.

Born in Wellington, New Zealand, on 30 August 1912, Nancy Wake's family moved to Australia and settled at North Sydney when she was 2 years old. In the early 1930s, Nancy Wake was a young woman enjoying a bohemian life in Paris. By the end of the Second World War, she was the Gestapo's most wanted person.

Her courier job became a highly successful escape network for Allied soldiers, perfectly camouflaged by Nancy's high-society life in Marseille. Her network was soon so successful - and so notorious - that she was forced to flee France to escape the Gestapo, who had dubbed her 'the white mouse' for her knack of slipping through its traps.

But Nancy was a passionate enemy of the Nazis and refused to stay away. Supplying weapons and training members of a powerful underground fighting force, organising Allied parachute drops, cycling four hundred kilometres across a mountain range to find a new transmitting radio - nothing seemed too difficult in her fight against the Nazis.

This book was a pleasant surprise.  As it is a biography, I was expecting something reasonably dry, more a factual documentation, but it is written in FitzSimons' typical style - light, easy-to-digest, something more akin to fiction than non-fiction.  This may rankle some biog aficionados, but I liked it.  Overall, this Bolinda e-Audio download is well worth a listen and Stephanie Daniel narrates it well, handling the many accents with aplomb. We also have this title in other audio formats - MP3, CD and Playaway, and hard print.
Deb.

*Companion of the Order of Australia
United Kingdom George Medal
Commonwealth of Nations 1939–1945 Star
France & Germany Star
United Kingdom Defence Medal
United Kingdom War Medal 1939–1945
French Republic Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur
French Republic Officier de la Légion d'Honneur
French Republic Croix de Guerre
United States of America Medal of Freedom
French Republic Médaille de la Résistance
Badge In Gold - New Zealand

23.1.15

This Changes Everything

This Changes Everything: capitalism vs the climate by Naomi Klein

In her most provocative book yet, Naomi Klein tackles the most profound threat humanity has ever faced: the war our economic model is waging against life on earth. Klein exposes the myths that are clouding the climate debate. 

You have been told the market will save us, when in fact the addiction to profit and growth is digging us in deeper every day. You have been told it's impossible to get off fossil fuels when in fact we know exactly how to do it - it just requires breaking every rule in the "free-market" playbook: reining in corporate power, rebuilding local economies and reclaiming our democracies. You have also been told that humanity is too greedy and selfish to rise to this challenge. In fact, all around the world, the fight back for the next economy is already succeeding in ways both surprising and inspiring. Climate change, Klein argues, is a civilizational wake-up call, a powerful message delivered in the language of fires, floods, storms, and droughts. Confronting it is no longer about changing the light bulbs. It's about changing the world - before the world changes so drastically that no one is safe. Either we leap - or we sink. 

I admit I am a Naomi Klein fan, so picked up her latest effort with glee and was not disappointed. Klein convincingly argues that the root cause of climate change and the failure of humanity to adequately deal with it lies in the western free-market economic model. It is capitalism which has fostered the exploitation of the earth’s resources to the point of possible human extinction, and therefore the solution to the carbon crisis lies with transforming the global political system to break free of our slavish devotion to fossil fuels. And Klein also argues convincingly that this task is definitely do-able, quoting recent reports and investigations which prove it. While much of the narrative is grim, there is also a very positive case to argue that the chances of humanity saving itself are good – IF we take heed and act now.

Teresa 

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