Friday, 10 February 2017

Book Review: The Possessions by Sara Flannery Murphy

Scribe Publishing 
Published 2017 (I own a copy courtesy of the publisher)

When my copy of The Possessions arrived in the post earlier this week, I stopped reading what I was reading and started it right away.  I have been excited to read this book ever since I first heard it was coming out, late last year.  The Possessions is the story of Eurydice, called Edie, who works as a 'body' for the Elysian Society, a secretive organisation which offers the bereaved the opportunity to speak to their lost loved ones again.  The bodies' job is to channel those spirits.  Edie has been working for the Elysian Society for five years, longer than anyone else has ever stayed, and then she meets Patrick.  Patrick Braddock's wife Sylvia has drowned, and he chooses Edie to be the method he will use to speak to her again.  From the moment Edie first channels Sylvia, she begins to feel different.  Are the strong feelings she is experiencing towards Patrick coming from Sylvia, or from Edie herself?  As Sylvia begins to become stronger in Edie's mind, the reader must ask which of them will prevail.

This is a stunning, genre-defying novel.  It has all the excitement of a thriller, the magic of a fantasy and the beautiful prose of a literary masterpiece.  Through Edie's point of view, we see the world Murphy has created to be her setting with a sense of cool detachment, which creates a growing sense of unease as she begins to realise nothing, and no one are as they seem.  Even Edie.  She is a strong character, likeable to us as the reader, even as she might be seen as distant and haughty by the others at the Elysian Society.  She is calm, intelligent, and though she tries to hide it, deeply saddened by events from her past.  Her guilt over what she did before she became Edie is heavily hinted at throughout the novel, and it appears to be her motivation for wanting to help her clients.

One of the major themes of the novel is the idea of disappearing, of one person's personality being completely subsumed by another's.  We see this in scenes where Edie switches back and forth between channelling Sylvia and being herself, failing at times to recognise herself, and at other times, staring into mirrors and searching for the intersections between the two women's faces.  Rather than being frightened by the idea that Sylvia might want her body permanently, Edie becomes obsessed with her, poring over photographs and even going so far as to investigate the woman's death.

Other characters in the novel are more concerned with the identity of the girl found dead in the building site nearby, whom the press are calling Hopeful Doe.  No one seems to know who she is, but her story captures the hearts of the public.

I don't know much about Greek mythology, but The Posessions appears to be thick with references to it.  All the bodies at the Elysian Society have assumed names.  Eurydice was the wife of Orpheus.  When she died, he attempted to retrieve her from Hades, but had to lead her out without looking back.  Another of the bodies, Dora, is named for Pandora.  In the legend, Pandora opened a box which let all the evils out into the world.  It is Dora's arrival at the Elysian Society which starts Edie questioning her life at the society.  Leander, a potential love interest for Edie before she knew Patrick, and another body, takes his name from the story of Hero and Leander.  Hero was a priestess of Aphrodite, and Leander a young man from across the strait.  He would swim across to tryst with her, but drowned one stormy night in the crossing, perhaps a reference to Leander's quashed chances with Edie.  Ana, whose full name we hear only once, is really Ananke-- the personification of inevitability, compulsion and necessity.  It is Ana who has been breaking the rules at the Elysian Society, Ana who shows Edie what's really going on, and Ana who gives Edie the way to be with Patrick.  The pills the bodies take in order to allow themselves to be possessed are called Lotuses-- a reference perhaps to the lotus eaters, a race of people who lived on an island covered in lotus flowers, who spent much of their time in a drugged state.  And the Elysian Society itself is a reference to the Elysian Fields, where the souls of heroes went to rest.  Much of this is from Homer's Odyssey, which admittedly I have never been able to read, though I like the stories contained within.

Quite simply, I loved this novel.  It had everything.  A love story, a puzzle, the supernatural, a connection with myth, beautiful writing and a character whom I felt connected with the whole way through.  It reminded me of some of the best Margaret Atwood, or of Anna North's The Life and Death of Sophie Stark, which I read and adored last January.  In some ways it also reminded me a little of what Audrey Niffenegger did in Her Fearful Symmetry, but much more satisfying (and a totally different plot.)  I have seen reviews online which say this sounds a little like Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier, but it's not right to say that this book is like any others, because it is wholly original, wholly unsettling and wholly engrossing.  Go pick it up.  It's out February 7th.

Five stars.  Possibly a contender for a top book of the year, already.  

Monday, 6 February 2017

Book Review: The Golden Child by Wendy James

HarperCollins Australia (I own a copy, courtesy the publisher)
Published February 2017

Blogger Lizzy's life is buzzing, happy, normal.  Two gorgeous children, a handsome husband, destiny under control.  For real-life Beth, things are unravelling.  Tensions are simmering with her husband, mother-in-law, and even her own mother.  Her teenage daughters, once the objects of her existence, have moved beyond her grasp and one of them has shown signs of, well, thoughtlessness...

Then a classmate of her daughter is callously bullied and the finger of blame is pointed at Beth's clever, beautiful child.  Shattered, shamed and frightened, two families must negotiate worlds of cruelty they are totally unprepared for. 

Last weekend was a good reading weekend.  Straight off the back of devouring one of my most anticipated reads of the year (The Fifth Letter by Nicola Moriarty), I picked up another HarperCollins new release, The Golden Child, and leap-frogged it up to the top of my to-be-read pile.  I was in the mood for quick, gripping reads, books that would keep me flicking the pages to the exclusion of all other tasks.  I got what I wished for and then some!

Beth is an Aussie expat, living in the US because of husband Dan's job.  She doesn't have a green card and so doesn't work, meaning her days are filled with two things-- looking after her daughters, Charlotte and Lucy, and writing her blog about being an expat Mum.  The book is told in multiple perspectives: mainly we hear from Beth, but there are occasional chapters from other characters as well.  In between these chapters are excerpts from blog posts, some of which are written by Beth about her life and family, and others which are anonymous accounts of how to manipulate and bully others, written by someone identifying only as 'Golden Child.'  After an incident at the girls' school in which an 'initiation challenge' run by Charlotte (Charlie) and her 'gang', Beth begins to see her younger daughter a little differently.  Only twelve years old, Charlie is smart and popular and always seems to have some sort of gang around her, made up of other smart, popular, pretty girls.  But is she also a bully?  Beth is certain that this must all be a misunderstanding, and that Charlie is being punished for something that was truly an accident.

Dan announces that he's being transferred back to Australia, meaning Beth is now going to be blogging about being an ex expat.  She's excited to be moving back to somewhere close to where she's from (Sydney), but less excited to be moving close to Dan's mother in Newcastle.  And if Charlie's school is going to view her as a bully over a misunderstanding, perhaps the move has come at exactly the right time.

At their new school in Newcastle, Charlie (now wanting to be known as Charlotte) immediately finds herself a new 'gang', and Beth manages to find herself a friend too.  Andie is the mother of a girl in Charlotte's year, and so Charlotte and Sophie (known as Slowphie to her horrid classmates) find themselves hanging out.  After Sophie is introduced, we start to see the story through her point of view as well, and we are witness to the horrendous cyberbullying and physical bullying Sophie is subjected to.  The worst of it is, while some of it is anonymous, some of it is coming from Charlotte and her friends.  And because we never see the story from either Lucy or Charlotte's points of view, we never know if Charlotte is lying or not, though we suspect if she is, she's also the 'Golden Child' of the blog.

This is a fast paced and tightly plotted novel, with all the twists and turns perfectly set up for without letting you figure them out too early.  It's a novel that will appeal to readers of Liane Moriarty and Jodi Picoult's earlier work.  Beth's struggle between needing to be responsible for what her daughter may have done, and needing to be a good mother to her and give her the benefit of the doubt is intensely wrought on the page, allowing the reader to really consider what they may have done were they in her shoes.  The contrast between Beth and Sophie, who is mostly happy in her own skin except when she's being tortured by her classmates, really makes you consider which side you are on, and whether or not it's as straightforward as simply picking one.  While Beth is caught in the middle of it all, needing to mother Charlotte, support her friend Andie, and defend Charlotte to Dan, who seems increasingly convinced that she must be guilty, we see her character struggle and grow to new depths.  Meanwhile, Sophie's interactions online force you to realise that all of this is happening to a very young girl, and for many readers, her experience will be all-too familiar.

This is a complex story about bullying which takes a unique perspective-- that of the parent of the perpetrator, asking us if bullies always come from unhappy homes.  I highly recommend this book and gave it four out of five stars.

Friday, 3 February 2017

Mini-Review: The Locksmith's Daughter by Karen Brooks

Harlequin Books 
Published 2016 (I bought myself a copy)

It's no secret that I am huge fan of the Tudor period, and that I love books set around that time-- though it seems I like the ones which give voices to women more than I like the ones which fictionalise all the battles and focus on the men, because I gave Conn Iggulden's War of the Roses series a go and it didn't grab me in the same way.  I was intrigued by The Locksmith's Daughter because, while it's heroine Mallory Bright was not a real person, her position in the novel as a watcher for Mister Secretary Walsingham, the Queen's Spymaster during the Elizabethan period, promised to give me as a reader an insight into the time period I had not been afforded before.  While I found some of the adherence to a Shakespearian language still (for example, calling people 'Sirrah' when they annoy you, saying 'Zounds' as an exclamations etc) a bit overdone and distracting, the book did take me in.  It was lovely, historical escapism, right down to the English Mammoth, Lord Nathaniel Warham, who was Mallory's love interest-- he reminded me a little of Fitzwilliam Darcy but with a little bit more of a personality.  (Sorry Darcy, but it's true, you're a stick in the mud sometimes.)  It was clear from the author's note that a lot of research had been done in the writing of this book, and while there were a few phrases the character used which were directly from Shakespeare, who wouldn't have had so much influence during his own time and is never even mentioned in the book, though one of the characters is a playwright and an actor, I did not notice any glaring anachronisms.  This was an absolutely massive book, but I read it quickly, and recommend it if you're in the mood for some light historical fiction with a love story.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Book Review: The Fifth Letter by Nicola Moriarty

Harper Collins Australia (I own a copy, courtesy of the publisher)
Published March 2017 (Pre-order it from your favourite bookshop now!)

Joni, Deb, Eden and Trina try to catch up once a year for some days away together.  Now in their thirties, commitments have pulled them in different directions, and the closeness they once enjoyed growing up seems increasingly elusive.  This year, determined to revive their intimacy, they each share a secret in an anonymous letter to be read out during the holiday.  But instead of bringing them closer, the revelations seem to drive them apart.  Then a fifth letter is discovered, venting long-held grudges, and it seems one of the women is in serious danger.  But who was the author?  And which of them should be worried?

It's been a long time since I read a whole book in a single sitting, but that's what happened when I picked up The Fifth Letter last night.  Nicola Moriarty has crafted a near-perfect page turner in her latest offering (due out in just under two months here in Australia), keeping me up well after my bedtime to find out who wrote the fifth letter and who it was about.  The book fits perfectly into an increasingly popular sub-section of books which nestle somewhere between commercial fiction and thrillers, using the conventions of the crime novel to keep up a cracking pace while examining the ins and outs of the lives of ordinary, suburban characters.  One other author who is also writing books that belong to this sub-section is Nicola's older sister Liane, whose novel Big Little Lies is about to become an HBO mini-series.  But I'm sure many reviews are going to comment on this familial connection, so I'm going to leave that well enough alone.  This is a great book in it's own right, and for whatever reason people pick it up, whether it be the name of the author, the great premise or that stunning cover, readers are in for a treat.  It's a perfect novel to read with a glass of wine in your hand, lazing on the couch after a long day.

The initial frame narrative does seem a little contrived-- Joni Camilleri, the member of the group who both threw them together on the first day of high school and is responsible for keeping them together through an annual retreat, is visiting a Catholic Priest to give confession.  Except her confession is more like a narrative, and she's treating poor Father O'Reilly like her therapist.  Good thing for her, he used to be a psychologist before he was a priest!  (Sigh...) Plus, he's very interested in Joni's story.  And so was I.  It begins in high school, when Joni, determined not to sit alone at lunch, gathers up four girls one of the teachers identified as having surnames that start with 'C' who are all Scorpios.  Sure, she has to whine and complain-- and yes, even lie a little bit-- to convince these girls to sit with her, but it works.  While other students begin to refer to them as The C-Word Girls, it doesn't really matter, because a friendship that's going to last beyond high school has been formed.

Skip forward to the fateful holiday, June 2016.  We are still seeing most of the story through Joni's eyes, though she's changed a fair bit through high school.  She's always felt she was the 'least cool' of the group, the one who was always willing to have a try but wasn't particularly good at anything.  Been there, Joni.  Felt like that.  And while Joni may be slightly irritating in the way that she wheedles her friends to do things with her, and even lied to Trina in order to make her hang out with them at all, which I thought was pretty bad, the fact that she feels this way when she compares herself to her friends makes her extremely relatable.  Joni is the only one with no children and the last one to get married.  She feels like her career (she writes articles for a blog) is accidental, whereas the others are all successful.  So when the idea is put forward that they all write anonymous confessions (there's that word again) and read one each night in an attempt to regain intimacy in their friendship, we see that Joni thinks she needs it more than the others.  And then she is reminded you should always be careful what you wish for.

The revelations of what is in the letters is done masterfully.  There is never too much exposition as Joni works through which of her friends she thinks is the author, and the readings of the letters are interspersed with scenes in which the friends do fun holiday things, like walk to a beach in search of a secret waterfall, try abseiling and do an obstacle course challenge for over-thirties, which starts off as fun until it starts to get a little bit competitive.  Each letter contains revelations which colour the way the girls interact with each other in these challenges, and it's easy to see the characters changing, and having to confront the things they'd written down.  After all, if they weren't telling them to their oldest friends, they probably weren't dealing with them at all.

So when Joni finds the fifth letter, half burned in the fireplace, and works out it has to be one of the other three who wrote it, things are already getting tense.  She can't just show the letter to all of them, but she can't seem to work out who wrote it.  And the reader by this point has been given enough reason to believe it could be any one of them.

I'm going to try and keep the rest of this review spoiler free, but if you haven't read the novel yet and you want to, perhaps stop reading now.

It's when things start to get wound up that the book starts to rely a tad too much on conveniences.  I was annoyed by the solution to the puzzle because I felt like there was no way I could have guessed it, and that it was not exciting, or juicy-- it was just stupid.  That, for me, took a point off the novel, which otherwise would have been five stars.  Add to that a minor character turning up in a new role in the epilogue (seriously, read it and let's whinge about that in the comments, please) and you have an ending which has veered a little of course in an otherwise spellbinding novel.

While I'm still really happy to have read this book, because I really enjoyed it, my reaction to the ending is still smarting the day after.  And perhaps it's because when I started this book, I thought it was going to be like nothing I'd ever read before that the ending let me down so.  I think for many readers, this won't even be an issue-- perhaps my focus was just in the wrong place and the revelation didn't hit home, but I think it's more likely that in trying to use the old Agatha Christie technique of making the culprit the least likely suspect, the story sort of missed its mark.  It was more like the culprit was the most likely suspect but for what felt like a silly reason.

That being said, I think this book is going to appeal to a lot of readers and I am going to recommend it to friends because I did really enjoy reading it.  I would definitely read Nicola Moriarty again (and in fact I think I probably have some second hand copies of her other books...)

I gave this book four stars.

Friday, 20 January 2017

Book Review: Extinctions by Josephine Wilson

Josephine Wilson
UWA Publishing, 2016 (I own a copy, courtesy the publisher)

Extinctions by Josephine Wilson was the winner of the inaugural Dorothy Hewett award, which ran for the first time in 2015.  The award was created in response to a significant change to the funding and structure of the WA Premier's Book Awards, which were reduced to a biennial format in 2015.  It is a prize which aims to "support literary talent both in and related to Western Australia, and to celebrate the life and writing of a stalwart Australian radical."  To read more about the award, click here.

The novel follows Professor Frederick Lothian, once an engineer, now a lonely man living in a retirement community, regretting the mistakes he has made and the people he has isolated himself from.  Frederick is a fascinating, and not wholly likable character, one who is far-removed from the world of words and language-- Frederick is a scientist, a man who likes angles and physics and science and numbers.  He is logical, rather than emotional, which has meant he has not always been the most compassionate person. It's proven difficult for him to relate to others, such as his wife and children, or to the students he lectured.  (There is one particularly poignant scene in which Frederick tries to speak to a student in distress about Earthquake resistant building design, when all she wants to do is confess she is troubled by the human toll of the Earthquake he uses as an example.  He simply cannot relate.)  Yet the language of the book is beautiful, and just right, perfectly calibrated to suit this highly intelligent character, and capture the beauty of the Western Australian setting as it moves through recognisable landmarks such as Cottesloe Beach and King's Park.  It is a novel which is at times deeply thoughtful and moving, while at others it is acerbically funny.

Frederick, now living in a retirement community among people whom he views as being much more elderly than he is (thus belying a lack of self-awareness, I believe, for he frequently seems confused and contradicts himself) is forced to confront his past head on, as he faces the task of unpacking the detritus from his old life into a small apartment.  He is still hanging on to his deceased wife's belongings-- such as a half-knitted jumper-- that he cannot bear to give away; and yet when a care home calls to speak to him about his son, he hangs up on them.  It is not until he meets Jan, a chatty neighbour with troubles of her own, that Frederick realises it's time to stop feeling sorry for himself and deal with the lot he has been given.

If at first, the arrival of an off-kilter neighbour to show him the error of his ways seems a little familiar, read on, for the novel makes use of the situation well.  Far from being a two-dimensional tool for the writer to move the plot along, Jan is a character who must go on a journey of her own-- from being a retired teacher and a mother, to having to adopt her own grandson after the death of her son and the child's abandonment by his mother, she struggles alongside Frederick, and in many ways, is helped by him as much as she is a helper.  Jan is kind, and takes the time to get to know people, but she is not a pushover.  She makes no bones about telling Frederick what she really thinks.  But she's not his romantic interest and this is not a meet-cute. Jan is independent and strong-willed, and is far too busy for romantic entanglement-- after all, she has a small child to look after, and has to find a place to do it.  But she knows something that Frederick seems yet to have worked out-- you cannot simply outrun emotions, or reason them away.  And sometimes the best way to cope is with a little help from others.

This short novel packs in many themes, and pays tribute to quiet lives of suburban anguish, showing that you never really know what is going on in the lives of others.  From issues such as adoption, race, drug abuse, disability, fatherhood and masculinity, as well as being a measured treatise on so-called 'old age', Extinctions is a masterpiece.

I gave this book five stars.  I can't wait to read what the Hewett Award winner will be for 2017.

Join Josephine Wilson, UWA Publishing and Westbooks at the State Library of WA on February 2nd for an exclusive book club event and author talk.  Details here.