Book reviews

Posts tagged ‘Australian fiction’

The Beautiful Fall by Hugh Breakey

The Beautiful Fall is Australian author Hugh Breakey’s first novel.

Robbie is a 31 year-old man living a solitary life in Sydney. He spends his days setting up a run of dominoes that twist and turn through the apartment he rarely leaves as he counts down to a day when he knows he is about to forget everything. Literally. Every 179 days, Robbie’s memory is wiped clean of all of his memories including his own name, although luckily for him he retains the memory of how to carry out functional tasks such as the ability to read, write and look after himself.

Robbie prepares for what he calls his ‘forgetting’ by locking himself into his apartment and writing letters for his future self to provide the information he will need to continue living independently, having told himself in a previous letter that if he struggles to look after himself he will be institutionalised for his own protection.

The dominoes were left in his apartment for him by his former self without an instruction but Robbie’s plan was to set them up prior to his forgetting for his future self to knock down, in an action that he hoped would provide his future self with a link to his past.

Robbie’s plans were thrown into disarray when he accidently knocked down a large portion of the domino run less than two weeks out from his next forgetting. Feeling frantic to rebuild what he had lost, Robbie invited a young woman who had unexpectedly delivered his groceries to help him to re-set up the remaining dominos.

As Robbie and Julie got to know each other better during the twelve-day countdown to Robbie’s next forgetting, Robbie began to wonder who his former self had been trying to protect him from when he had set himself up to live like a hermit.

The story was full of twists and turns which frequently surprised me. I won’t go into these here since they would be spoilers for other readers but I will say that I enjoyed getting to know Robbie, Julie and learning both of their stories.

I hadn’t realised the story was a romance when I bought it even though the drawings of the two hands on the cover and the blurb describing Robbie’s impression of Julie as being “Young, beautiful-the only woman he can ever remember meeting,” should have given me a clue!

There were several times when I wondered why Robbie and Julie didn’t behave differently to how they did in the story but as I’ve said many times when reviewing books, if characters did things the way I think they should, then there wouldn’t be a story to tell.

Fans of the films Groundhog Day and 50 First Dates will probably enjoy this story as much as I did.

My purchase of The Beautiful Fall by Hugh Breakey continues to meet my New Year’s resolution for 2021 to buy a book by an Australian author during each month of this year (July).

Fighting Ruben Wolfe by Markus Zusak

Having read The Underdog by Markus Zusak, I couldn’t rest until I read Fighting Ruben Wolfe, the second book in the trilogy about Cameron Wolfe and his family.

The story continues on from where The Underdog finished, following Cameron as he and his brother Ruben as they deal with growing up in a slummy area of Sydney after their father lost his job, causing their mother to get a second job. Worse, their sister Sarah got a reputation after her boyfriend dumped her for another girl.

A man who had heard of Ruben’s prowess as a fighter engaged Ruben and Cameron to fight in illegal boxing matches attended by men who bet on the outcomes and girls who wanted to attach themselves to the winning boxers.

Ruben was a fierce fighter who showed his opponents no mercy but Cameron, whose fighting name was the Underdog, began his season by dodging his opponent’s blows, much to the anger of the crowd and his employer. As the season progressed Cameron learned to trust himself and to fight hard, but when he and Ruben were scheduled to fight each other, everything changed.

I dislike boxing and violence in general, but I loved this story as much as I did The Underdog and am looking forward to reading When Dogs Cry to finish the set.

The Underdog by Markus Zusak

The Underdog was Australian author Markus Zusak’s first novel who is best known for The Book Thief.

The story is told in the first person by fifteen-year old Cameron Wolfe. Cameron lives in an inner city slum with his hardworking parents, two older brothers and his older sister. Cameron and his brother Ruben constantly fight in their backyard and plan robberies which they never actually do, while their sister Sarah spends most of her time on the couch pashing her boyfriend. Their eldest brother is a football star who has nothing but disdain for his younger siblings and their hardworking mother despairs of them all.

During the telling of the story, Cameron works weekends with his father, a plumber, and falls in love with a girl who tells him she likes another boy, one who Cameron knows won’t treat her well. Although Cameron knows that he is himself just a grubby boy, he cares about this girl and his family. Cameron is somewhat of a loner, but he is there for his friends when they need him.

The plot was very slight, but reading this made me feel as if I spent a day in a fifteen-year old boy’s dirty, smelly shoes (and holey socks).

The Underdog was written for younger teenagers but I didn’t feel as if the story or the writing had been oversimplified or trivialised. I cared about Cameron and his family and liked them all very much. This book is part of a trilogy, with Fighting Ruben Wolfe and When Dogs Cry.

Other People’s Houses by Kelli Hawkins

I bought Other People’s Houses by debut Australian author Kelli Hawkins because I loved the cover and the title. Like many other people, I’m fascinated by how other people live.

This story is told in the first person by Kate Webb, a middle-aged alcoholic living in Sydney. Kate worked in a real estate agency writing ads for properties (just by the way, my pet hate is ‘sort’-after properties which are regularly advertised in my local newspaper). Kate spent her weekends visiting open houses for properties for sale in suburbs where she would never be able to afford to buy, feeding her dream of the life she wished she had. The rest of the time Kate spent drinking herself into oblivion, resenting her mother and sister and grieving for her son Sasha, who had died somewhat mysteriously ten years before the story began.

When Kate visited the Harding House during an Open for Inspection she was besotted by the house and with the dream of what her life might have been like had Sasha lived, but she was also intrigued by the family whose home it was. While there Kate recognised the house’s owner, Pip Harding as someone she had known years ago from art school and became envious of Pip’s seemingly perfect life, especially her husband and teenage son, who would have been about the same age as Sasha if he had lived.

I should have disliked Kate, because amongst other stupid behaviours she drank and drove but strangely I felt as if I was on her side as her interest in the Hardings’ family life eventually became an obsession. Kate’s guilt and sadness over the death of her son and the breakdown of her marriage made her failings understandable, but they also led her into danger, in the style of The Girl on the Train.

As I commented earlier, I loved the photo used on the cover of this novel. Property, their prices and locations are an ongoing interest for many Australians including me, although the story being set in Sydney was not as interesting to me as it would have been had the story been set in Melbourne (location, location, location!) but as I said earlier, I’m also very interested in how other people live. Do they have a piano and bookcases stuffed with books and games or do they have an enormous, central wall-mounted television in their loungeroom? Does the kitchen look like somewhere their family would gather or don’t they cook at all? Is there a sheltered spot where someone can sit outside in the sun and read?

Rather than sharing my queries about other people’s bedrooms, I’ll get back to the story. The mystery of what happened to Sasha wasn’t revealed until quite late in the book, although there were quite a few (possibly too many) hints about what happened.

The story wasn’t perfect, but I enjoyed it and feel as if this author will improve with future books. I will be happy to read Kelli Hawkins’ next book.

My purchase of Other People’s Houses by Kelli Hawkins continues to meet my New Year’s resolution for 2021 to buy a book by an Australian author during each month of this year (May).

The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood

I started The Natural Way of Things by Australian author Charlotte Wood with a strong sense of anticipation, having enjoyed The Weekend very much.

The story began with a group of women waking up at a remote, abandoned outback farm after having been drugged and kidnapped. Once awake, their heads were shaved and they were given clothing reminiscent of the outfits the handmaids wore in Margaret Attwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, before being shackled together and beaten into submission by two seemingly ordinary young men whose job it was to guard them.

As the story evolved it emerged that each of women had been publicly ‘slut-shamed’ in the media before being taken to the dry, dusty, infertile farm, which was surrounded by an inpenetrable electric fence.

One woman had been humiliated after her affair with a government minister became known, another the same but with a high-profile religious figure. Several women had been the victims of gang-rapes, one on a cruise ship after which she had been left for dead by her rapists, while another woman had been raped by a group of footballers. One young woman had been a promising swimmer before becoming a victim of her high-profile sports coach. None of the women’s stories were particularly different to those that are in the media today, day in and day out.

The media not only slut-shamed the women, but they also victim-blamed them by presenting the events and the perpetrators’ behaviour as the women’s own fault.

The story particularly followed two of the women, Yolanda and Verla, who eventually became friends of a sort. There were friendships between other women too, as well as instances of the women turning on each other.

When the food stores on the infertile, dry dusty farm began to run out and it became clear even to the women’s captors that there was no escape for any of them, Yolanda took on the role of provider and trapped rabbits to keep all of them, including their captors alive. Over time each of the women and their captors fell into some degree of madness.

The early stages of The Natural Way of Things was so like The Handmaid’s Tale that I felt uncomfortable reading it, wondering if there was a case for plagiarism, however as the story evolved it went in a very different direction to The Handmaid’s Tale.

I appreciated the points the story made, but much preferred The Weekend over The Natural Way of Things.

Loner by Georgina Young

Loner is the debut novel of Australian author Georgina Young, who won the 2019 Text Prize for this book.

The main character, Lona, is a twenty year-old art school drop out who works at a roller skating rink in a Melbourne suburb. She has a massive crush on a former schoolmate and is overly dependent on her best friend Tab. She has no plans for the future, blue hair, loves to read and actively avoids social interactions and activities which she considers to be pointless.

When Lona’s mother insisted that Lona either return to university or get another job and start paying board, Lona got a job at a supermarket then moved out of home into a share house, preferring to sleep in a curtained-off section of the loungeroom than pay board to her parents. Lona then began a relationship with a medical student but despite him understanding her need for solitude, they broke up, then Lona lost her job and moved home again.

The story of Lona’s grandfather’s loss of independence as the story continued contrasted with Lona becoming more independent.

Not much actually happens in this story but the characters are so good, particularly Lona, that Loner reminded me how it felt to be a young adult, sometimes full of confidence and other times not, not knowing what I wanted or was supposed to care about but thinking that I should know, and often worrying that other people would know that I was only pretending to be an adult.

While I enjoyed the contemporary Melbourne setting, reading about Lona’s work at Planet Skate filled me with joy. I was reminded of being a teenager in the 1980s and the glorious sensation of speeding past little kids and wobbly adults on my navy and white Hang Ten skates while eighties pop songs blared out and the disco lights flashed on and off.

The story is broken up into extremely short chapters which suited the characters and the story.

Loner is YA, but I would happily recommend this book to adult readers.

Chasing the McCubbin by Sandi Scaunich

The joyful cover art on Chasing the McCubbin by debut Australian author Sandi Scaunich depicting a garage sale wasn’t the only reason why I chose to purchase this book for my Australian reading/book buying challenge. I’m not embarrassed to admit that I like fossicking through other people’s unwanted bits and pieces, although I’m more likely to visit an Op Shop than attend a garage sale. Usually I’m looking for books so would probably bypass a painting by Frederick McCubbin in my hunt for books that I’ve been busting to read but unable to find!

Chasing the McCubbin tells the story of an odd couple, Ron and Joseph who teamed up to scrounge through hard rubbish collections and garage sales around Melbourne during the early 1990s. Ron had been buying and selling for years, but after the death of his wife needed assistance from someone to direct him to the advertised sales, then to help him to carry and load his purchases into his van for a percentage of the profits.

Since the death of his wife Ron’s health had continued to worsen but the possibility of finding valuable items in other people’s cast-offs had long been his obsession. The items Ron bought and sold supplemented his meagre income during the recession that Australia ‘had to have’.

Joseph was a troubled school-leaver from a poor area who had been unable to find a job when he unwillingly teamed up with Ron at the request of his mother. The recent death of Joseph’s older brother had left Joseph and his mother emotionally devastated and generally unable to cope with day-to-day life. Joseph’s tragic back story of family violence was told over the course of the story.

Each week Joseph and Ron met their fellow collectors at the garage sales, people who Ron had nicknamed according to their characteristics or by what they collected. They formed a community of sorts and consisted of The Crone, the Tool-Men, the Thief, the Record Men, Fritz the German and others. Over the course of a year Joseph began to learn from Ron which items were valuable and which were not, along with the more valuable lesson that families should value their own histories.

Viewing paintings by Frederick McCubbin gives me (and I suspect most Australians) a sense of belonging despite many of his paintings depicting an Australian bush life which very few people actually ever lived, except for in our romantic visions of ourselves. Since European settlement began in Australia more Australians have lived in cities than in the bush.

View of the Yarra River towards Richmond from below McCubbin’s House, Kensington Road

I loved that this story reminded me of scrounging through sheds on family member’s farms and hearing stories about the past generations who had treasured those items. I liked Ron and Joseph, the Melbourne setting and the period when the story was set. I’ll definitely read whatever Sandi Scaunich writes next.

My purchase of Chasing the McCubbin by Sandi Scaunich continues to satisfy my New Year’s resolution for 2021 which is to buy a book by an Australian author during each month of this year (April).

The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman

M.L. Stedman’s debut novel The Light Between Oceans became a New York Times bestseller and was loved by readers all over the world.

After World War One, war hero Tom Sherbourne became a lighthouse-keeper, eventually working his way up to a posting on isolated Janus Island where he managed the (fictional) lighthouse station. On a trip ashore to the south-west corner of Western Australia Tom met Isabel Graysmark, the two fell in love and eventually married, despite Tom’s misgivings about how Isabel would adapt to life on the island.

At first, Isabel thrived but after she suffered multiple miscarriages over a period of several years it seemed unlikely that she and Tom would ever have a child of their own. When a boat washed ashore carrying a baby sheltered beneath a dead man, presumably the baby’s father, Isabel convinced Tom not to report the event so they could keep the baby for their own. Almost against his will Tom agreed, buried the man and set the boat adrift again.

Although Tom’s conscience bothered him, Isabel was convinced the baby they had named Lucy was an orphan.

During a trip ashore for Lucy’s christening, Tom and Isabel learned that the baby’s heartbroken mother lived nearby.

Isabel somehow convinced Tom that Lucy was better off with them than with her mother and they returned to the island. Lucy grew up to be a happy and inquisitive child but Tom, who knew they had done the wrong thing, eventually contacted Lucy’s real mother anonymously to let her know her child was safe and well.

Eventually their secret came out, leaving everyone’s lives upended again.

While I found the plot to be slightly predictable, I loved reading about the main character’s lives on the island, the town on the mainland and the characters who lived there. I especially enjoyed the wonderful descriptions of how lighthouses work, which obviously led me to daydreaming about living on a deserted island, with or without a lighthouse.

The Light Between Oceans wasn’t really for me, but I can see why so many people loved it.

Kokomo by Victoria Hannan

I bought Kokomo by Australian author Victoria Hannan despite the cover, which I didn’t like at all. After reading the story and discovering the main themes are unfulfilled wants and desires, I realised why this image and colour scheme were chosen, though and believe they suit the story.

Kokomo was told in two halves. The first half followed Mina, a hardworking copy editor living in London who was hopeful of receiving a much-deserved promotion at work. Mina was also on the brink of starting a love affair with her colleague Jack, when her best friend Kira phoned with the news that Mina’s mother, who had not left her home since the death of Mina’s father many years ago, had unexpectedly left her house in Melbourne.

Mina dropped everything to fly home to Melbourne but when she arrived, found her mother to be uncommunicative and resentful of Mina’s presence.

Mina attempted to reconnect with her old friends but apart from Kira, struggled as most had married and settled down into family life, living very different lives to hers.

Although Mina desperately wanted to be back in London at her job and with Jack, she fell back into the lifestyle she had left ten years ago, going out, getting drunk and making stupid choices about sex with people who she didn’t really want or like.

Her friendship with Kira seemed to be the truest relationship Mina had. Kira’s family and Mina’s were neighbours and they had supported Mina and her mother Elaine after Mina’s father death when Mina was just a teenager. Valerie, Kira’s mother, had continued to look after Elaine after Mina moved to London.

The second half of Kokomo told Elaine’s story and explained the closeness of the relationship between the two families. Elaine’s and Mina’s characters were unexpectedly similar in that their longings shaped their lives.

I found much of Mina and Elaine’s personal behaviour to be incomprehensible and somewhat unlikely, but appreciated the contemporary issues the story raised. These ranged from mental health issues to sexism in the workplace and dealing with toxic relationships, as well as portraying friendships, family relationships, in particular children learning that there is more to their parents than their relationships with their children.

In a warning to my fellow prudes, the first chapter nearly put me off reading the book completely since I had far less interest in the physical description of Jack’s penis than what Mina apparently had. If this level of detail isn’t to your taste either, my suggestion is to read the back cover then skip straight to Chapter Two.

I enjoyed the contemporary Melbourne setting and recognised many of the places Mina visited.

My purchase of Kokomo by Victoria Hannan continues to satisfy my New Year’s resolution for 2021 which is to buy a book by an Australian author during each month of this year (March).

Kitchen Sink Drama by Paul Connolly and illustrated by Jim Pavlidis

Kitchen Sink Drama by Paul Connolly and illustrated by Jim Pavlidis is one of my favourite sections in Australia’s Good Weekend magazine.

Kitchen Sink Dramas consist of a 100-word story and illustration and are based on normal people doing normal things in modern-day Australia. Some of the stories and pictures make me laugh, some cause me to nod with recognition and smile wryly, while other stories leave me teary-eyed with a lump in my throat.

The cover illustration goes with the story called The Trauma Cleaner and is about Jasmine and Omar. He cooks and while she appreciates his culinary masterpieces, he uses every pot, pan and spoon in the house to do so. Since the rule in their house is that the person who cooks doesn’t have to clean the kitchen, Jasmine would sometimes prefer beans on toast. This story is one that left me feeling empathetic towards Jasmine as He Who Eats All of Our Leftovers does most of the cooking at our house these days and while I love and appreciate him for it, I wish, just once in a while, he would cook the vegetables without them boiling over because cleaning the stove night after night gets me down.

No matter how many times I read Odd Jobs it brings a lump to my throat.

The father in this story who shows his daughters how much he loves them by bringing his tools and making repairs when he visits them reminds me of my own father, who used to do this for me. These days, HWEAoOL’s does the same for Honey-bunny and once Miss S is grown up and has left home, no doubt HWEAoOl’s will bring his tools with him when he visit her too.

I couldn’t stop laughing after I read Pillow Fights. A couple who bought a new mattress were sucked into buying $150 latex pillows but a week of no sleep later, she went back to her old pillow while he was determined to get his money’s worth out of the new pillow, “even if it meant never sleeping again.” The same thing happened to me, I bought a new mattress and in a fit of madness bought a latex pillow at the same time. When I get really tired and am desperate for a good night’s sleep, I swap the blasted thing for my old, squashy pillow.

I read Yellow Submarine aloud to Miss S who delighted me by recognising herself in the story. Yellow Submarine is about a teenage girl who was forced to go on a two-week holiday with her family. The girl told her friends she would prefer to make out with a creepy dude with bad breath than go on holidays with her family, but just thirteen kilometres later found herself humming along to Yellow Submarine playing on the car radio.

Kitchen Sink Drama would make a great gift but it is also a book that if bought for yourself, would bring joy to your life. I believe a range of Kitchen Sink Drama tea towels are also available.

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