Book reviews

Posts tagged ‘Australian author’

Red Queen by H.M. Brown

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I read some of the short stories in Six Degrees by Australian author Honey Brown last year but didn’t finish as they were too explicitly sexual for my taste, but the writing was good and I was keen to find Red Queen because it is an end-of-world novel, a genre I love.

Red Queen starts with Rohan and Shannon, two Australian brothers living in their parent’s cabin in the bush after a flu-like virus has decimated much of the world’s human population. Their father was an end-of-the world-er (gotta love ’em) who built their hidden cabin to be self-sufficient, possibly around the time we all expected the world to end with the millennial bug. He also built massive bunkers and filled them with chocolate and wine and flour and sugar and baked beans in anticipation of just such an event, but sadly he and the boy’s mother died of the Red Queen virus before they could enjoy their foresight.

Rohan, at 38, is in charge. He is tough and angry and constantly annoyed with his younger brother Shannon, who is 23 and a day-dreamer who forgets to keep a look-out for intruders because he is playing his guitar. When someone sneaks into the cabin and starts stealing food, the brothers are terrified they might have been exposed to the virus.

When the intruder makes herself known to Rohan and Shannon she throws herself on their mercy, and the dynamics of the brother’s relationship changes. Denny adds a sexual element to the novel which was more interesting for the possessiveness and jealousy that arose than for the explicitly-described activities themselves.

Of course Rohan, Shannon and Denny aren’t the only survivors of the Red Queen virus and eventually their battle to survive takes an unexpected turn.

I wish the author had told me more about what happened in the cities when the Red Queen virus hit Australia, and more about the background of the virus, such as where did it come from and was anyone immune? I would also have liked a less predictable ending, but there were a few twists and turns which I didn’t see coming.

I have a cold now. I’m filled up with phlegm and can’t stop sneezing. Hopefully it’s only a strain of the Red Queen virus, because I don’t want the Man-Flu. I had the Man-Flu once and it was terrible. It felt like the end of the world…

 

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The Choke by Sofie Laguna

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Australian author Sofie Laguna knows how to pull on my heartstrings. The Eye of the Sheep, which won the Miles Franklin Literary Award was excellent, but I think The Choke is even better.

The Choke is a place, a narrow spot on the Murray River which separates Victoria and New South Wales. Justine, The Choke‘s main character, lives with her Pop and his chooks on his three acres on the river.

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Justine will probably be the character from my reading this year who stays in my head forever. She is ten when the story starts and fourteen when it finishes, but this is not a book for children. The Choke is a book for adults, and much like The Eye of the Sheep, demands that we see children who are neglected and in danger and that we act on their behalf.

Justine’s Pop does the best he can for her, but he is physically and emotionally damaged from his time as a prisoner of war working on the Burma Railway. Justine’s father, Ray, is a charismatic, manipulative and dangerous man who comes and goes from Pop’s farm, usually turning up when he needs a refuge. Justine’s two older half-brothers live in town with their mother, who won’t even look at Justine as Ray left her for Justine’s mother. Justine’s mother is either dead or gone. Justine blames herself for her mother’s disappearance.

Justine is dyslexic and struggles at school, but none of her teachers or family notice. She just slides by, unnoticed. Justine has girl friends who occasionally comment that she is dirty or that she smells, but until she makes friends with a boy in her class who is also invisible because of his physical handicaps, has no one on her side. Justine and Michael’s friendship is a joy to both of them, and it was a joy to me too.

As Justine grew older she becomes more at risk, as a consequence of her father’s criminal activities and because she is completely unprotected by her all-male family, and also because of her own innocence. I felt furious with Justine’s Aunty Rita, who also comes and goes, as well as the other women in this book who must have seen and ignored the danger Justine was in.

The writing in The Choke is wonderful. Very Australian, and evocative of the time and place. My anxiety for Justine throughout this book was high, and I often felt uncomfortable and distressed as her story unfolded, but I was left with a feeling of hope for Justine’s future. I’m already looking forward to whatever Sofie Laguna dishes out next.

 

 

 

 

 

Wake in Fright by Kenneth Cook

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Wake in Fright was Australian author Kenneth Cook’s first novel. I read Eliza Fraser by this author at a very young age, not sure I was old enough for the story then but the only books which were forbidden to me on my parent’s bookshelves were a set of gruesome Crime and Punishment books because Mum said they would give me nightmares. Thank goodness Wake in Fright wasn’t on Mum and Dad’s shelves, because I would definitely have had nightmares had I read it then.

John Grant, the main character of Wake in Fright, is a school teacher in a one-room school at Tiboonda, a place with a school, a pub and a railway station in the back of beyond. When school breaks up for summer, John hops on the train to Bundayabba, from where he intends to catch the plane to Sydney to spend six glorious weeks at the beach chasing after the lovely Robyn. John in indentured to the Department of Education and owes them another year in the heat and dust of Tiboonda before he is free to get a job teaching back on the coast.

John has spent his school holidays at The Yabba as he hasn’t been able to afford to go back to Sydney, but on this visit, with 22 pounds in cash and a cheque for another 140 pounds, representing his year’s work less expenses (beer is expensive in Tiboonda, but at least it’s cold), he’s almost counting the minutes until he gets on the plane the next morning.

John books a room in a hotel for the night, then heads out to get a meal. From here, things go pear-shaped. John starts drinking with a copper (police officer) who takes him to The Game, an illegal gambling den where Two-Up is played. John plays and wins, then imagines himself winning enough to not have to go back to Tiboonda, and tries again. In a single toss of the pennies, he loses everything.

John wakes up hung-over and broke, facing six weeks in The Yabba with no money, no friends and no hope of getting to Sydney. He falls in with a bunch of drunken miners who share their beer and take him spot-lighting (shooting kangaroos). Reading about these idiots bouncing along a dirt track in the dark, all of them drunk and with their weapons loaded made me shudder. How none of them shot themselves or each other was a miracle.

I felt annoyed with John quite often, he had no common-sense at all and every time he had to make a decision, he made the wrong one, probably because he was mostly either drunk or so hung-over he would rather have been dead.

Wake in Fright was written in 1961 and is a fast, exciting read, although bloke-y and occasionally vicious. There were only two female characters, one a whore and the other, Robyn, an ideal, rather than an actual person. This isn’t a book for those who can’t stomach animal cruelty, there is also casual racism which was in keeping with times. The story is quite dark, too. Regardless of all of the reasons why I shouldn’t have liked this book though, I couldn’t put it down. I’ve never been to Broken Hill, which The Yabba is based on, and now, I’m not sure I ever will.

 

 

 

 

The Life of Houses by Lisa Gorton

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The Life of Houses is Australian author Lisa Gorton’s first novel for adults. She is best known for her poetry and essays.

The Life of Houses is the story of a mother and her teenage daughter who struggle to connect with each other. Anna, the mother, is a successful and well known art gallery owner in Melbourne. Anna’s daughter, Kit, holds herself apart from her mother as a punishment, in the way that teenage girls know how to do so well…

Anna is married, but her husband is in England and she is having an affair with Peter. He has left his wife and wants to have an honest relationship with Anna, but she hasn’t told her husband yet and so seems to me uncommitted to Peter.

Anna sends Kit to stay with her grandparents and aunt for a week at her family home, a grand old house at an unnamed town at the beach. Strange as this may seem, Kit did not know her grandparents or aunt prior to this visit, having only visited them once when she was a baby. Other than this one visit, Anna has not visited her own parents since she returned from England.

Kit’s aunt is relatively normal, but her grandparents are also difficult to know. Dementia and ill health are taking their toll on both. Kit’s grandfather burdens her by telling her that one day the house and all of their belongings will be hers.

I found the characters in The Life of Houses to be too cold and dispassionate for me to care about any of them. Anna and Kit held themselves too far apart from each other, and from me for me to care about them. Anna’s sophistication was off-putting to me too, if she were real she would never see me and I would not be interested in her either.

The language and writing style was so careful and considered that it seemed to me that emotion was missing from the story.

I didn’t feel a strong connection to the Australian-ness of the book either. These characters weren’t people I know and I didn’t feel a strong sense of place. The book is set alternatively in Melbourne and in a beach town not far from Melbourne, and I kept hoping to recognise something that could make this story mine in some way.

I found The Life of Houses to be frustrating aloof, but wouldn’t be at all surprised to hear that more serious readers than me loved the story.

The Rules of Backyard Cricket by Jock Serong

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The Rules of Backyard Cricket, Australian author Jock Serong’s second novel, is a ripper.

I’ve only recently finished Quota, Serong’s Ned Kelly award winning first novel and would ordinarily have waited a few months before starting his second novel, The Rules of Backyard Cricket. However, these books are on loan to me from Aunty Gwen and I can’t keep them forever, so decided to get a move on.

The Rules of Backyard Cricket starts with Darren Keefe, a former Australian cricketer, gagged and bound in the boot of a car, presumably on his way to be murdered. As the car travels Darren does his best to break free of his binds and while he is doing so, he tells us his story.

Darren’s backstory is told chronologically, which I liked. He starts with his childhood, playing cricket in their Melbourne backyard and fighting with his older brother, Wally, as they are brought up by their single mother after their father up and left one day never to be seen again.

The Keefe boys are good batsmen who grow up to be great cricketers. Their tempers and personalities are completely different, as is often the case with siblings. Darren is a larrikin who takes pride in his reputation as an impulsive bad boy, while Wally’s personality is so measured that the media find him boring. The brothers are enormously competitive with each other. Darren makes the State Team first, Wally follows soon after. Wally makes the Australian side and Darren is a sure thing to be picked next to wear the baggy green cap but loses his chance when he breaks his thumb batting a bouncer bowled by a riled-up West Indian player. The description of Darren’s broken thumb, called a Rolando fracture, had me squirming.

Wally went on to captain Australia, while Darren’s broken thumb left him playing one-dayers, giving the crowd their money’s worth and getting up to no good the rest of the time. Images of Shane Warne being photographed smoking, texting women who he wasn’t married to, and generally misbehaving kept springing to mind, but Warnie was a great cricketer and a larrikin, rather than a would-be great cricketer who missed his chance.

Darren was involved in quite a few dodgy sidelines outside of cricket, any of which could have led to the situation in the car boot, but I was kept guessing to learn what had actually caused this until the end of the story. When it came, I was left gasping.

Darren’s most formative relationship, other than that with Wally, was with his mother. She loved cricket too and encouraged her sons to make the most of their talent. Darren was unable to continue a long-term relationship with any other women, probably for the same reason as many other sportsmen; too much temptation in the form of other women while living out of a suitcase.

What I keep thinking about though, a few weeks after having finished the book, is sibling rivalry. My understanding is that the first child in a family takes on a particular role or set of characteristics, then when the next one comes along and because some traits are already taken, they find something different for themselves to set themselves apart from the first child, and so on and on with all of the following children in the family. So the first child might be the responsible (or bossy) personality, the second might be the rebel, the third the funny one, the fourth the easy-going child and the fifth child so far under the radar they might as well not even be there, etc. Darren and Wally certainly exhibited character differences, but their competitiveness with each other when it came to cricket was extreme.

This story could have used any sport for the setting, but I enjoyed the use of cricket. While I’m not a fan I’m as familiar with cricket as most Australians, having played backyard cricket, filled in on my brother’s team when they were short of players and scored their games when they had a full side. I’ve attended a one day game at the MCG (possibly the longest day of my life) and the sound of a Test Match on television in my parents and my parent in law’s lounge room’s is constant.

So, the rules of backyard cricket are generally the same all over Australia. Over the fence is out, break a window and you’re out, plus you’ll eat dinner off the mantelpiece for a week! Anyone younger than six can’t go out on the first ball and older brothers aren’t allowed to bowl bouncers at their younger siblings. Otherwise, it’s just not cricket…. (sorry, I couldn’t help myself!)

Jock Serong’s third novel is On the Java Ridge and I’ll read it sometime soon.

 

 

 

 

 

Quota by Jock Serong

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Quota, Australian author Jock Serong’s first book, was lent to me by my Aunty Gwen. She reads and buys good books, is a member of a local book group, and attends writer’s talks and bookish functions and as a result, her recommendations are always varied and interesting. In this case, Quota was even more interesting to me because the author had signed Aunty Gwen’s copy of the book. Also, the story is set in a fictionalised version of a fishing town in the Western District of Victoria, an area of the world which I dearly love.

Quota won the 2015 Australian Crime Writers Association Ned Kelly Award for Best First Fiction.

All of the above pre-disposed me to like Quota before I even started reading, but I genuinely enjoyed the story once I actually started. The story gets off to a great start with the court transcripts of a young lawyer, Charlie Jardim, losing his temper and telling the judge what he really thinks of him. For anyone who has ever wanted to tell someone in authority what they really think, read this chapter and reconsider…

Charlie is left to cool down in the police cells for a few days and once released, finds himself employed by an older, more experienced barrister to do the legwork for a murder case in Dauphin, a fishing town four hours along the coast from Melbourne, where a young man was shot and set on fire on his fishing boat.

The title, Quota, comes from the abalone fishing quota. It probably goes without saying that there is a black market for abalone (not sure why, I think they are too chewy. I think the rareness and cost make them more appealing for people who want things that are had to get, although maybe I’ve just never tried them cooked nicely). Anyway, the murdered man and his younger brother Patrick were running abalone and drugs between Dauphin and Melbourne for the Murchison family, who own everything that makes money in Dauphin.

Charlie is working for the prosecution and needs Patrick to open up to him, as his police statement doesn’t make sense.

Skip Murchison and another man get locked up for the murder and Charlie finds himself unable to get any information out of Patrick or anyone else in Dauphin. Charlie is threatened by the Murchisons and beaten in a seemingly unrelated late-night attack, but is otherwise ignored by the townspeople who are suspicious of him. Charlie makes it clear to Patrick that he is on his side and that Patrick’s needs to be completely honest about what happened out at sea when his brother was killed, but Patrick is an orphan with three younger siblings to look out for and he is not convinced that him being honest is in anyone’s best interests.

I enjoyed this story enormously. The location reminded me of a seedier, smaller version of Port Fairy or Warrnambool and I believe the author actually lives in Port Fairy. The character’s behaviour felt realistic to me, especially the townspeople who wouldn’t give the time of day to an outsider and the town’s dependency on the one dominant family who owned and ran everything. The slangy, laconic dialogue was spot on.

The ending of Quota felt a little muddy, but as this was the first novel by this author, I feel sure that the two books Jock Serong has written since will be tighter. Luckily for me they are in Aunty Gwen’s big bag of books. I’m reading The Rules of Backyard Cricket next.

 

 

 

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

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Burial Rites is the first book by Australian author Hannah Kent. It is based on the true story of Agnes Magnusdottir, who was sentenced to death in 1829 for her role in the brutal murder of two men in Iceland.

The first thing I wondered about when I picked up this book was why an Australian author would write a story about an old murder on the other side of the world, but the author’s page says she learned of the story while on a Rotary Club Exchange program to Iceland as a teenager. I expect that particular Australian Rotary Club were very pleased they selected Hannah from that year’s batch of applicants for their Exchange Program…

When the story starts, Agnes is a condemned prisoner waiting for the King of Denmark to approve the Icelandic District Commissioner’s findings; that she, along with another man and woman, was guilty of murdering two men and was to be executed for her role in the crimes. Without a suitable place to house Agnes until her death, the District Commissioner decides she is to stay at the home of the District Officer of Kornsa, Jon Jonsson.

Jon’s wife Margret and his daughters Lauga and Steina don’t want a condemned prisoner in their home, but are forced to comply. While Agnes is with them she works as their servant inside their home and on their farm. Reverend Toti, who she has asked to provide her with spiritual guidance, visits regularly. Toti, although young and inexperienced, finds that Agnes does better telling him her story than when he tries to teach her, so along with the Jonsson family, Toti listens as Agnes tells him about her miserable childhood, how she became a servant on the farm of one of the murdered men and of the events which led to the murders.

Burial Rites takes the harshness of life in Iceland at that time for granted and while I was reading I felt grateful to live in a different time and a warmer place. The descriptions of the family and servants all sleeping and living together in an earthen croft were unappealing. The smells must have been horrible and the lack of privacy impossible. While I expected the story to feature the wonder of the Northern Lights I was surprised to find the descriptions of the landscape to be so beautiful.  I was also surprised to learn that Christianity was so dominant in Iceland at the time.

I was left wondering if the real Agnes Magnusdottir was guilty of the murders or not. In real life, Agnes was the last person in Iceland to be executed. I pitied the character Agnes, who was portrayed in Burial Rites as being clever and attractive. Not surprisingly though, the story is sad and does not leave the reader with hope for a better future for any of the characters.

The story is extraordinarily well written, especially so for a debut novel from a 28-year old author. Hannah Kent has followed up on Burial Rites with The Good People, which I expect to read later this year.

 

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