Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Book Review: The Last Act of Hattie Hoffman

The Last Act of Hattie Hoffman 
Mindy Mejia
Quercus, 2017 
I own a copy courtesy of the publisher

In a small town in America, a young woman named Hattie Hoffman is found dead in an abandoned barn.  The Sheriff on duty is Del Goodman-- a Vietnam veteran, and a friend of the Hoffman family.  Del is a good cop, but this case is personal, and his sanity may depend on whether or not he can get justice for Hattie.

Told in three voices, The Last Act of Hattie Hoffman is both a murder mystery and a coming of age novel.

Hattie is a chameleon.  She changes her personality to fit in with the people around her, becoming whatever they want most.  The perfect daughter.  The devoted best friend.  The star pupil.  (In some other countries, the novel is titled Everything You Want Me to Be.)  She is a seventeen year old girl, bright but a bit of an introvert, except when it comes to acting.  The night of her murder, she has been on stage performing in her school's production of Macbeth, and her portrayal of Lady Macbeth has proved to the adults around her that there are hidden depths to Hattie.

Then there is the voice of Peter Lund, Hattie's English teacher and director of the school play.  Peter has moved from Minneapolis so that his wife, Mary Beth, can take care of her elderly mother Elsa.  Elsa refuses to leave the farm where she and her husband had lived all through their married life, and while the arrangement is only supposed to be temporary, Peter watches as his wife slips easily back into the life she left behind.  Feeling like an outsider, Peter turns to online chatrooms, seeking intellectual conversation about books and art, and finds himself embroiled in a digital affair with the charismatic HollyG (as in Holly Golightly- the heroine of Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's.)

The final voice is that of Del Goodman.  While Peter and Hattie's sections span the months leading up to Hattie's death, Del's sections happen after, as he negotiates questioning suspects, digging into the files on Hattie's computer, and the long, painful wait for DNA analysis at the busy Minneapolis crime lab where he has sent all the evidence for testing.  Del finds himself torn between his hurt and anguish over the death of the little girl he once knew, and the truths he uncovers about the young woman she had become in the course of the case.  As all of the pieces slowly begin to fall into place, what we are given is a complex portrait of three emotionally isolated people living in a small town.

This is a stunning, complex novel, akin to Anna North's The Life and Death of Sophie Stark.  It relies on a multi-perspective view of the world which plays with the way that different characters are viewed in different contexts to skew ideas of innocent, guilty, good and bad.  All the while, the book is extremely readable, at times even binge-readable.

By the end of the book, it's clear to see that Hattie Hoffman was a likable sociopath just trying to find her way in the world, and despite the view that readers may have of her behaviour by the end of the book, Mindy Mejia has definitely captured the rift in a community that is created when a young woman is murdered.  The setting of this book- both physical and 'emotional/social' is spot on, and adds to the atmosphere.  I could see this book being adapted for a film easily, and, being an actress, Hattie would probably have liked that.

Filled with intertextual links to books line Jane Eyre, this is a thinking person's mystery, a literary crime, and would probably appeal more to readers of literary fiction than someone craving a straight up mystery.  I found it the perfect blend, and loved getting to know the people as I followed along in the solving of the crime.

The only part of the book which fell flat was related to the ending, and if you haven't read the novel, perhaps now is the time to close the browser and read this interview no more.  The resolution of the book relies on a double twist-- and it simply was not needed.  One twist would have been fine.  The second twist brought the resolution back to a far more basic level and it made everything leading up to its discovery seem like a frustrating waste of words and time. The tragedy of the set up that first twist suggested-- a man in jail after committing to the crime of his wife so that she won't have to raise their baby in jail-- fits perfectly with the rest of the book.  Sure, it's depressing, but it fits.  It was that kind of book.  I love that kind of ending.  But as it was, the new ending was too neat.  Everyone got a fresh start but Hattie (and the killer, of course).

I could forgive the ending, because I enjoyed spending my Sunday curled up with this book, and I think you probably would too, if you've read this far.

I gave this book four stars.

Friday, 6 October 2017

Book Review: We That Are Left by Lisa Bigelow

We That are Left
Lisa Bigelow
Allen and Unwin, 2017
I own a copy courtesy of the publisher

The sinking of the HMAS Sydney was a sobering moment in Australian history.  Mystery and rumour surrounded the loss of the vessel and all 600 + souls on board until the mid-2000s when the wreckage was finally located.  In We That Are Left, the struggles of the loved ones left behind by some of those crew members lost in the tragedy are re-imagined.

We That Are Left is the story of two women.  There is Mae, who is looking forward to her naval engineer husband coming home to spend Christmas with his baby daughter when she hears that his ship, the Sydney is missing.  The other woman, Grace, is a country girl who has come to Melbourne to becoming a reporter, just like her heroine, the movie character Torchy Blane.   She's in the newsroom when the rumour comes down the wire, and watches as the news media are gagged by the Armed Forces, desperate to keep the loss a secret for as long as possible not to damage morale.  Bound to report on the story, Grace must witness first hand the suffering of those left behind. When her fiance is injured in Singapore covering a story, and then captured by the Japanese and held in Changi, she too must endure the pain of waiting for a loved one to return, not knowing if he'll be the same man who left. 

Lisa Bigelow's debut novel brings a human element to a well-known event of Australian World War Two history.  While many of the facts of the tragedy are known, to read about wives and mothers and children who are missing their loved ones and hoping against hope that the ship will miraculously turn up is to really appreciate the impact of the event.  One benefit of a historical novel is the certainty that comes with time.  Writing this piece, Bigelow and her readers know much more about the event than her characters ever will, and it is with great empathy that she evokes this pain and heartache and blind faith in her character, Mae.  While Grace and Mae have several crossovers, they never actually meet within the book, and yet their stories are completely intertwined, bringing home the interconnectedness that always becomes apparent after big events. 

While writing about tragedy, Bigelow's writing is never heavy-handed.  This novel is also rich in hope-- from the support that Mae receives from her family, to the steps she takes moving on to the next phase of her life, or for Grace, the way that her career begins to progress as a woman looking for work in a man's profession when men are scarce.  Far from being a romance, We That Are Left is a novel about two characters who are forced to find the strength to endure the lasting impact that war has on their home lives, and while each woman has her own flaws, there is something very relateable about their journeys.  

This novel is a quick, absorbing read, which will appeal to fans of Deborah Burrows. 

I really enjoyed it and gave it four stars. 

Monday, 25 September 2017

Book Spotlight: Beautiful Messy Love by Tess Woods

Beautiful Messy Love
Harper Collins 2017
I own a copy, courtesy of the author/ publisher

Earlier this year, I received a parcel at work.  It was wrapped in red paper and tied up with a red and white ribbon.  Inside was a copy of Tess Woods' new book, Beautiful Messy Love-- pre-release-- and a dozen or so red rose petals.  There was also a handwritten card from Tess, which to this day, still sits on my work desk.  

I first met Tess Woods late last year when the Bassendean Memorial Library had decided to put on a series of talks called The Literary Lounge, and through the bookstore where I work (which works mostly with libraries), I was brought on board to do the book sales.  Tess's first book, Love at First Flight was about to be published in physical form for the first time, so it must have been about July or August last year, I think.  I'd been seeing Love at First Flight absolutely everywhere.  It was all over my Facebook and Twitter, and many of my author friends were talking about how amazing this Tess Woods was.  We decided to ask her to present at the very first Literary Lounge, and she agreed. 

Now, we're really lucky in Western Australia, because not only do we have a lot of amazing, talented writers living here, they're also really lovely people and frequently give up their time to put on events in bookstores and libraries.  I've met a lot of authors in this fashion and some of them have gone on to become friends.  But it's always exciting to have the opportunity to work with someone new, and introduce them to the audience for the first time.  And we really struck gold with Tess, because she was so warm, and open, and funny, and the audience loved her.  Interviewing her was a dream.  

So fast forward about twelve months to that parcel arriving at my work.  I was excited.  I was already excited about Tess's new book, but to be sent one by the author with a note of thanks for the support I had provided was touching.  (The fact that Tess's acknowledgements in the back of her new book go for several pages tell you a lot about the big heart this lady has.)  I took the book home and I put it on my bedside table, waiting for the perfect, uninterrupted stretch of time to read it. 

Last weekend, the time came and I delved in.  Beautiful Messy Love is a contemporary story of two couples-- Nick and Anna, and Lily and Toby, four young people who live in Perth in the present day.  (Not to spoil anything here, and sorry Tess if it was a secret, but Nick and Lily are actually the kids from Love at First Flight, all grown up.)  Nick, a professional footballer in a fictional AFL team, is recovering from stress fractures in his feet, when he meets Anna, an Egyptian refugee whose mother was once a powerful political figure.  Their romance is tested when Nick's fame and Anna's 'otherness' attract media attention.  Meanwhile, Lily is struggling to become a doctor.  Her serious boyfriend, Ben, has just left her, when she meets Toby in the hospital cafe and they have 'a moment'.  Yet things are never simple, and Lily later learns that Toby has a wife who is dying of cancer in the very ward where Lily is doing her oncology rotation.  

This book is a tribute to how messy falling in love can be, and how beautiful that makes life.  It is a book with complex, nuanced characters and a powerful message.  I wanted to live in the world of this book, and couldn't help but jump back into it at every chance I got.  In particular, Nick and Anna's story moved me.  Tess has obviously done a lot of research into writing about refugees and asylum seekers, and she writes about people escaping persecution and seeking a new life in Australia with generosity of spirit and a great degree of intelligence.  Tess also writes family particularly well, and the scene in Karrakatta cemetery when Lily takes Toby to see her father's grave had me tearing up and thinking about how much I love my own Dad.  (Soppy, I know).  But that's the power of a great book.  It anchors you to the real world, and makes you think and feel things.  

So Tess, if you're reading this-- you have outdone yourself.  And to everyone else?  Beautiful Messy Love is available now at all good bookshops (and if you're in Perth, I think Tess has signed pretty much every available copy), and you should go and pick one up.  

This is not a review-- I can't claim to be unbiased enough to write a review.  iI's a spotlight on a lovely author and her wonderful book, and I can't recommend you read it highly enough.  

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Short Story Book Club (The Podcast) Ep 3: Pulse Points

This month, I was joined at the Short Story Book Club by my dear friend, Belinda Hermawan, to talk about Pulse Points.  This collection, by award winning writer Jennifer Down, provided us with lots to talk about, and we discussed the various ways reading a great short story can benefit your own practise as a writer.

In other news, you can now subscribe to The Short Story Book Club Podcast on iTunes!  Please leave us a review or a rating if you like what we do, because that will help others find us.

Without any further ado, I give you episode 3...

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Book Review The Mitford Murders by Jessica Fellowes

The Mitford Murders by Jessica Fellowes
Sphere, 2017
I own a copy, courtesy of the publisher

With the cinematic remake of Murder on the Orient Express looming, it seems as if Agatha Christie is back in vogue again-- that is, if she were ever out of it, who am I to say?  It's timely, then, that Jessica Fellowes should be launching her new cosy mystery series now.  Set in England in the early 1920s, The Mitford Murders looks to be the first in a series of books following accidental sleuth Louisa Cannon and sidekick, Nancy Mitford.  This first volume introduces us to Louisa, nineteen years old and living with her mother and her Uncle.  Her mother does laundry for some of their more well-off neighbours, and while Louisa has a loving relationship with her mother, the age gap between them is considerably more than between most mothers and daughters of the time. After the death of Louisa's father, Uncle Stephen comes to live with them.  Uncle Stephen is not a very nice man at all, and he owes money up and down the country, with no means of paying anyone back, except by nefarious means.  When he decides to prostitute out his niece to one of the people he owes money to, Louisa knows that she has to make her escape, and so she takes a job at Asthill Manor, the home of the Mitford family.

Of course, the Mitfords are real people-- and a few of the Mitford sisters are rather well-known today.  A few people have remarked in their reviews that the narrative really did not require the use of the real-life Mitford family at all, and I would be inclined to agree.  While I'm a big believe that there IS a difference between history and historical fiction, and that under circumstances, it's all right to play around with people and events (so long as research is done, and no harm comes of it), this story could have been just as entertaining were it about entirely made up people.  The murder at the centre of the plot is real too, and remains unsolved to this day, though the book offers an explanation which is somewhat complicated and fanciful.  In her author's note, Fellowes admits that she manipulated the date of Nancy's eighteenth birthday to suit the plot, which I don't really see a reason for.  Then again, I think most historical novelists must do this sort of thing when they have no alternative, and good on Jessica Fellowes for being upfront about it.

Where Fellowes excels is in her descriptions of the fashions and customs of 1920s life in the upper classes.  Would we expect anything less from the writer of the Downton Abbey companion books?  Her ballroom scenes sparkle, and her social niceties give a lovely authentic feel to the interactions.  However, I couldn't help but feel that an excess of this sort of description obscured the fact that the plot was rather convoluted, and that the point of view of the piece seemed to jump around, sometimes hopping in and out of three or four different heads in the space of one scene.  Louisa herself wasn't much of a protagonist.  While she had strong motivations, in running from her Uncle, and something to look forward to in her relationship with Railway Policeman, Guy Sullivan, I never got a sense of her as a woman.  She had no likes, dislikes, or strong opinions.  She seemed a little like a sounding board for Nancy Mitford to bounce ideas off of, which begged the question of, if writing about the Mitfords was essential, why Nancy was not made the protagonist in the first place.

As far as a light, cosy mystery goes, this one was entertaining so long as it wasn't held up to particularly close examination.  I read it in two days, and was never so annoyed by it that I felt I couldn't continue.  I think readers of Kerry Greenwood or Agatha Christie would probably quite enjoy this book.  At times, I was reminded of the earlier episodes of Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, and curiously, wanted to either go and reread Love in a Cold Climate (of which I remember very little except being nonplussed) or to begin re-watching Downton Abbey again for the third or fourth time.  Perhaps this series will get better with time, but I think it's safe to say that this series is not for me.

I gave it two and a half out of five stars.