Book reviews

Posts tagged ‘Australian fiction’

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.

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.

 

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

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The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Australian author Richard Flanagan won the Man Booker Prize in 2014, but don’t let that stop you from reading this book.*

Secondly, don’t be put off because most of the story takes place during World War 2. I avoid war novels and wouldn’t have read The Narrow Road to the Deep North had I realised what the setting was before starting, but as it turned out, I read most of this emotionally draining, gruelling story with a huge lump in my throat. There were times I had to stop reading because I was feeling too much to continue. I can list other books which have made me feel this way with just the fingers on one hand.

“A good book, he had concluded, leaves you wanting to reread the book. A great book compels you to reread your own soul. Such books were for him rare, and as he aged, rarer. Still he searched, on more Ithaca for which he was forever bound.”

And lastly, don’t be put off by the beginning of the book which doesn’t do justice to the rest of the story. It also took me a while to get used to quotation marks not being used to differentiate dialogue within the text.

He was your cobber?

Like all immigrants, he seemed to have an erring instinct for the oldest, truest words in his new language.

The story follows the life of a Tasmanian doctor, Dorrigo Evans, who for most of the book is a Japanese prisoner of war on the Burmese Railway. The story is interspersed with the story of Dorrigo’s love affair with his uncle’s wife, Amy, who for Dorrigo, no other woman ever lived up to. Later, the story switches to Dorrigo’s life after the war.

The stories of the Australian POWs while building what became known as the Death Railway in The Narrow Road to the Deep North are harrowing, but the story does not treat the characters with pity. Instead, I realised that the POWs themselves had no room in their quest for their own survival for pity, either for themselves or for anyone else, although that didn’t mean that they didn’t show kindness to each other, generosity and a spirit which made me feel overwhelmingly patriotic at times (for an Australian society which no longer exists).

“Darky Gardiner loathed Tiny, thought him a fool and would do anything to keep him alive. Because courage, survival, love–all these things didn’t live in one man. They lived in them all or they died and every man with them; they had come to believe that to abandon one man was to abandon themselves.”

The way the Japanese soldiers are portrayed is interesting, in that their cruelty to the POWs is shown to be the only way they can behave and still be Japanese.

“Humans are only one of many things, and all these things long to live, and the highest form of living is freedom: a man to be a man, a cloud to be a cloud, bamboo to be bamboo.”

I’m taking a break from reading for a few days because I’m not ready for another story yet, as The Narrow Road to the Deep North still has too strong a hold of my heart and imagination. And yes, I’ll be working my way through other books by Richard Flanagan soon.

*My reading tastes can be quite low-brow, I often enjoy books that critics bag out, and dislike books they praise.

Happy Australia Day, everyone.

Bay of Martyrs by Tony Black and Matt Neal

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I have been hanging out to read Bay of Martyrs by Tony Black and Matt Neal, who set their crime-thriller in my old stamping grounds of Warrnambool, Peterborough and Port Fairy, on the south-west coast of Victoria, Australia.

Part of the danger in reading a novel set in a familiar location is that the reader will pick up on inaccuracies or poetic licence to do with the place which might detract from their enjoyment. I struggled with this initially but then settled in and enjoyed the story, deciding that a reader who doesn’t know this part of the world wouldn’t care about the parts which annoyed me.

The story is fast-paced and believable, apart from the crime-rate in Warrnambool. There were heaps of dead people by the end of this story, and even though locals always turn to the death notices in The Standard first to see who they know, it is rare for anyone in town to die of anything other than natural causes.

The story starts with the body of a young woman found dead at the Bay of Martyrs, a Peterborough beach. Local police write off her death as misadventure and fail to investigate further. A stereotypical hard-drinking, smoking, drug-using journalist, Clayton Moloney, thinks there is more going on and starts poking around. Luckily Clay is mates with a cop or two, knows plenty of drug-dealers and regularly shags someone who is able to provide him with a copy of the dead woman’s autopsy report.

Clay teams up with an Irish photographer who is new to town and together they follow a number of stories, including the expansion of the airport (although as locals point out, they would prefer money to be spent on better roads) and a few human-interest stories such as people turning 100, although things become more interesting when another woman dies in mysterious circumstances.

When Clay is beaten up by a couple of thugs in The Warrnambool Hotel, Clay realises he is closer to finding out what supposedly doesn’t exist and of course, being beaten up makes him keener than ever to find out what is going on so he can get the story onto the front page of the paper.

The story resolved satisfactorily although there were no big surprises about who the bad guys were or how the story unfolded.

I haven’t read many co-authored books but didn’t notice differences in style. I believe Matt Neal is a journo at The Standard and Tony Black has written a number of well-received crime novels. The characters are worthy of a series but in reality, not that much happens in Warrnambool…

 

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The photo below is of the Bay of Islands from the top of the track which leads down to the Bay of Martyrs beach. Not dark and gloomy enough to go on the cover of a crime novel, but in my opinion, one of the most beautiful places on earth.

 

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Each time I tried to buy Bay of Martyrs in Warrnambool the book was sold out and book-sellers were waiting on more stock, so clearly I’m not the only one who enjoyed reading a story set in a familiar location.

 

 

 

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