Sunday, 13 May 2018

Book Review: Afternoons with Harvey Beam

Afternoons with Harvey Beam
Carrie Cox
Fremantle Press, 2018

There would be few vehicles less perfect to write a book about the dysfunction of modern life than making your protagonist a talkback radio host. 

Harvey Beam, once the star of a Sydney commercial radio station, begins his journey back to his old home town of Shorton in disgrace.  His father, Lionel, is dying in hospital and so Harvey steps away from an employer who wants to replace him and returns to the place where it all began.  Not much seems to have changed, except for Harvey himself.  His two sisters, Naomi and Penny are still engaged in a never-ending argument, his brother Bryan is still sitting on his high horse and relishing being the favourite brother, and it's still impossible to get a decent cup of coffee anywhere in the town.  Yet compared to Sydney, Shorton is a breath of fresh air for Harvey.  Though at first he resents the idea of having to go back to a small town in the middle of nowhere, where he's not a big shot anymore, it takes getting away from Sydney and big city life for him to realise just how fed up with it he is.  Shorton still has a few surprised in store for Harvey, not least in the form of Naomi's rarely before sighted husband Matt, whom Harvey views as one of the actual few interesting people he's ever met.  And then there's Grace.  What began as a conversation between neighbours on the plane flight in seems as though it may blossom into something more.

Told through alternating snippets of the present day in Shorton, and in notable moments of Harvey's radio career as a talkback host, the novel uses the medium of radio programs to introduce topics like big city versus small town mentalities, 'no go' zones when it comes to dating a friend's ex, social customs regarding funerals, the value of arts degrees and so on.  Harvey seems to have a clear ethos when it comes to what makes good radio, and how best to get people talking, but the longer he stays in Sydney, the more he comes off as a privileged shock jock and towards the end of his career at the commercial station, he begins to make several newsworthy blunders.  It is only when he is back on Shorton radio once more that he realises criticism is not conversation, and his attitude towards life does not endear him to others.  This is a technique that works really nicely for the novel, barring in one section towards the end of the book, where the talkback topic is September 11-- the connection to the progress of the plot was lost on me there, and it almost seemed like a forced grab at depth which the novel really didn't need.  I got more from the talkback segment on Wayne Carey's infidelity with a team-mate's wife, which had a direct link to a decision Harvey was trying to make.

As the novel wraps up, there seems to be a race for the finish line, and though a few questions remained unanswered, for the most part, it seemed like characters ended up where they needed to.  A few things which were established in the final chapter through summary might have warranted their own scenes.

Afternoons with Harvey Beam is a frank, funny, and very Australian family drama.  As the Beam family gather around the bedside of Lionel to say their long goodbyes, the reader is given access to a complicated family history, involving divorce, abuse, favouritism and the fierce bonds that can form-- or not form-- between siblings.  As Harvey reflects on the relationship he had with his father and the trajectory his life has taken since he left his home town, he is forced to compare his own performance as a father and as a man.  Though not always reliable when it comes to doing the right thing, Harvey is a sympathetic character, and one whose actions are easy to understand when you look at what he has been up against.  By the end of the book, it's clear to see that change and redemption are possible for Harvey Beam, though not every relationship in his life has been sorted out come the close of his father's funeral.  Akin to Jonathan Tropper's This is Where I Leave You but with more of the community feeling evoked by a setting of a stinking hot town with one pub, Afternoons with Harvey Beam will appeal to readers young and old, and is a perfect choice for book clubs. 

Saturday, 21 April 2018

Books set during World War One

Recently, it was beginning to bug me that I had read so many more books about World War Two than I had about World War One.  I don't mean non fiction because generally, I don't tend to read a lot of whole books from the non fictional side of life anyway.  But in fiction, I felt like this constituted a rather large gap in my reading, particularly for someone who identifies as a historical fiction writer.

I've just started sketching out ideas and scenes for a new book, and this one is going to be set between the years 1913, when my protagonist marries and 1921, when her husband (who was reported dead in 1916) is found to be suffering from amnesia and living in a private home in England.  Obviously as I have barely written any of this yet, these details may change.  I am now in what I like to think of as the 'woolgathering' phase of the drafting process, in which I read as much as I can to immerse myself in the mindset, and write snippets of scenes in my notebook.

For anyone else out there, who, like me thinks of World War One as a more sparsely populated fictional setting, here is a list of books I have set myself the challenge of reading.

The Secret Son by Jenny Ackland

Set between the early 1900s and the present day, this novel follows up on the premise: what if Ned Kelly had a secret son who fought at Gallipoli, and who stayed behind in Turkey after the war?  It's an interesting concept, and quite enjoyable to read.


The Regeneration Trilogy by Pat Barker

The Lie by Helen Dunmore

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks 

Bereft by Chris Womersley

A Letter from Italy and The Desert Nurse by Pamela Hart

The Desert Nurse will be released in June and I am really excited to read it.  Pamela Hart's historical novels are always extremely entertaining and well researched.


The Daughters of Mars by Tom Keneally

Strange Meeting by Susan Hill

A Fortunate Life by AB Facey

Like most Western Australian readers, I've actually read this one before, but Fremantle Press are rejacketing the book this year and will be releasing an edition for younger readers.  It's a memoir, and shows in great detail what life was like in WA during that time.  I think it's time for a re-read...


Traitor by Stephen Daisley

Wake by Anna Hope

Thanks to Rosemary for the recommendation on this one-- it sounds amazing and I just saw that there is a copy in my local library. 

Hettie, a dance instructress at the Palais, lives at home with her mother and her brother, mute and lost after his return from the war. One night, at work, she meets a wealthy, educated man and has reason to think he is as smitten with her as she is with him. Still there is something distracted about him, something she cannot reach...Evelyn works at the Pensions Exchange through which thousands of men have claimed benefits from wounds or debilitating distress. Embittered by her own loss, more and more estranged from her posh parents, she looks for solace in her adored brother who has not been the same since he returned from the front...Ada is beset by visions of her son on every street, convinced he is still alive. Helpless, her loving husband of 25 years has withdrawn from her. Then one day a young man appears at her door with notions to peddle, like hundreds of out of work veterans. But when he shows signs of being seriously disturbed—she recognizes the symptoms of "shell shock"—and utters the name of her son she is jolted to the core...


This is but a selection of some of the reading I will be doing over the next few months.  If you have a favourite book set during World War One, do let me know in the comments below, and in the meantime, happy reading!  


Sunday, 15 April 2018

Book Review: The Wicked Cometh

The Wicked Cometh
Laura Carlin
Hodder & Stoughton, 2018

When Hester White is hit by a horse and carriage on the streets of London in 1831, she is brought into the home of the Brock siblings, Calder and Rebekah.  Calder, a surgeon, entreats his older sister to become a teacher to Hester, whom he mistakenly believes to be an uneducated member of the poor working class, given the area of town where he came across her.  In truth, Hester is the orphaned daughter of a pastor, who was taken in by her father's former gardener and his wife. Fearful of being sent away to the Society for the Suppression of Mendicity, she plays along with the scheme, adopting the mannerisms and speech of her friend Annie.  The more time she spends with Rebekah Brock, the more she feels a connection to the woman, but the connection is of a nature that confuses and frightens Hester, and for much of the early part of the book, Hester is uncertain of whether or nor she can be trusted.

Alongside this Victorian love story, there is also a mystery.  People have been disappearing all over town, and handbills litter the streets asking for information on the whereabouts of loved ones.  Rebekah and Hester both have connections to missing people, Rebekah having lost contact with two previous ladies' maids under suspicious circumstances, and Hester having made a commitment to meet a cousin to seek employment, finds it strange that said cousin has not turned up in the three weeks since he was supposed to arrive. 

The Wicked Cometh is a modern attempt at the Victorian sensation novel.  It has elements of Conan Doyle and Du Maurier, as well as paying homage to Dickens and Wilkie Collins.  At times the language of the book can tend to be a little florid, but the story itself is compelling enough to make up for this in my opinion.  While it has been compared to Tipping the Velvet and The Crimson Petal and the White, I would argue that this piece is a lot more plot driven than at least the second of those as it is not a novel that functions on quite so intellectual a level, instead choosing to draw the reader along by emotion.  One thing that did strike me as a little strange was the choice to tell a historical story in the present tense.  This is an unusual technique and I struggle to think of other examples where it has taken place.  However the author, Laura Carlin, has done an excellent job not only of evoking Victorian London, but of building a sense of atmosphere that heightens the development of the mystery at the centre of the plot.  Perhaps a little too much time was spent early on in the romance aspect of the novel (for little pay off, may I add), and this meant that the solution to the mystery did seem to come all at once in a late chapter, explained by a very minor character.  I did very much enjoy this book, despite its flaws and I would certainly read another book by Carlin were she to write about this era again.

Highlights of the book for me included the link to real history, such as the Anatomy Act of 1832 and the Mendicity Society, the well crafted setting, and the development of two compelling characters in Hester and Rebekah.

I gave this book 3.5 stars.

Thank you to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for this review. 

Friday, 30 March 2018

Where do ideas come from?

Finishing a big project is a funny thing.  First of all, it's incredibly hard to know when you are finished as a writer, unless the option to make changes is taken away from you... say if your book is actually published and for sale in book shops.  Even then, you can still make changes, but what's the point, really?  But up until you get that magic 'Yes', it sometimes feels like you may be moving those commas around forever.

For all intents and purposes, right at this moment, Between the Sleepers exists in a temporary 'finished' state.  I know that there will be more work to do, but I hope that the next time I work on it, it may be under the guidance of an agent or publisher.  Who knows though, it could just be me and my red pen working on draft number twelve...

The other thing that is funny (as in funny strange, not funny haha) about having finished a project is the sense of being untethered that comes with it.  I've been working on that book on and off now for pretty much a decade, though I haven't been working on it solely that whole time.  No matter what else I have been working on, I have always come back to those characters and what they are up to.  This time actually feels a bit different.  I am not sick of them, but I feel like they have been fully fleshed out and that I have given them a good story and a good ending... which means that it's time to start something new.

I realised the other night that I have been rewriting this novel for so long that I don't remember what it's like not to have a novel on the go.  What did I used to want to write about before I started working on Between the Sleepers?   I don't know, though I do have some memories of the 'mini-novels' I wrote as a teenager, once of which (urban fantasy about body-swapping that was truly terrible) I actually sent to a publisher and received nice correspondence about, possibly because they could see I was only 15. 

Ideas are fickle creatures.  Sometimes you have so many of them that it's hard to keep up and write them all down.  It seems some days like the more ideas you have, the more you get, like the ones you have time to write properly bring their friends and you end up with an unruly idea party.  And then other times, you sit down at the computer thinking 'okay, time to write' and nothing happens.  I like the idea that you need to fill the well before you can start another book.  That's quite a comforting way to think about it.  That you need to read a lot of things and do a lot of new things and talk to a lot of new people in order to be as full of material and thoughts and words and 'newness' to write the next book as you were when you sat down to write the first.  That you are not a tap that can just be turned on and books come out of you on demand.

So, for now, I am well-filling, and I am starting down that path of re-discovery once more.  Excited to start a new book and a little unsure if I'll be able to repeat the magic trick, but hoping I can-- because to be truly immersed in a project is a wonderful thing, and I am looking forward to getting there again.

Sunday, 25 March 2018

Book Spotlight: The Art of Persuasion by Susan Midalia

A Book Spotlight is not a review, but a feature of a book by a person I know and admire.

Susan Midalia is best known for her critically acclaimed short story collections, The History of the Beanbag and other stories, The Unknown Sky and other stories  and Feet to the Stars and other stories.  In each of these story collections, she has demonstrated her great skill at getting inside the heads of characters from a wide range of backgrounds and ages, and telling their stories.  In The Art of Persuasion, her first novel, that character and point of view belongs to Hazel West, a 25 year old ex-teacher who is living in a share house with her best friend Beth and just trying to make it in the world.  Once a teacher, Hazel is now not entirely sure what she wants to do with her life, and so to pass the time, she decides to read the classics, starting with A-- so she begins reading Jane Austen.  The book in question is Persuasion, Jane Austen's last written novel (for I believe, Northanger Abbey was written first but published last), and arguably one of her more mature comedies in which Anne Eliot must persuade her former admirer Captain Wentworth to fall in love with her again after she sent him away seven years earlier.  While this particular book does teach Hazel a few things and makes her think about love, relationships, and persuasion, this is not simply a novel that modernises Austen.

Hazel agrees to volunteer on a doorknocking campaign for the Greens ahead of an upcoming election.  There, she must spend time with Adam, a charismatic older man to whom she feels strongly attracted.  Can the art of persuasion be used not only to convince voters in the leafy Western Suburbs to care about climate change and asylum seekers, but also to convince Adam to give loving Hazel a chance?

I won't tell you any more about the plot of the book because much of the joy of reading is in the discovery.  And there is much to discover and love in The Art of Persuasion, whether it be the clever and satisfying plot, the sassy, witty and strong heroine, whose journey is far, far more than just a quest for love, or even just the love of language, words and literature that come through on the page.  I found myself writing down facts about the origins of words, or jotting down the names of short stories to read later, recommended on the pages of the book which was a true delight.  Without straying into preachiness, this novel talks about important issues of the day whether they be politics, gender equality, or issues faced by students and teachers in our schools, and it does all of this in a very clever, very entertaining way.  The tone of this book is light and funny without being trivial.  Quite simply, I could not put this down, and within reading a few chapters, I was already recommending it to friends and co-workers.

So do yourself a favour-- head down to your closest bookshop and ask them to order you a copy of The Art of Persuasion.  You won't regret it.

Five stars.

The Art of Persuasion is published by Fremantle Press this April.