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.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

Book Review: The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart

The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart
Holly Ringland
Harper Collins 2018

Given the amount of buzz that has already surrounded the release of Holly Ringland’s debut novel, The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart, it would be unsurprising if the book did not live up to the hype.  In recent years, booksellers and reviewers have seen the promise ‘the most exciting debut of the year’ emblazoned on numerous covers, and have collectively thought, “surely that cannot be true for all of them.”  But when it comes to The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart, the only disappointing thing about it is that readers will have to wait until April 2018 to experience it. 

The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart tells the story of Alice Hart, who goes to live with her estranged grandmother after a family tragedy.  Traumatised, Alice takes solace in the assortment of women who live at her grandmother’s property, Thornfield, where native flowers are grown and the Victorian art of floriography—or communicating through certain floral arrangements—is practised.  The women (and dog) at Thornfield become Alice’s family, and under their care, she grows up and takes her place in a long line of women from Thornfield who have loved and lost fiercely.  Partly set at beautiful Thornfield, a sprawling inland property with a river at its heart in more ways than one, and partly set at a National Park in the Northern Territory, Alice’s story is one which is bound up in the language of Australian native flowers, their hidden meanings, their connection to Australia’s history, and the people of the present day.

But perhaps the best thing about The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart is that it is a story about stories.  The flowers tell stories, and help Alice to communicate when she cannot find the right words, but storytelling also makes appearances in other forms.  There is family history running through this book, and the reader gets to know (albeit briefly) four generations of Thornfield women, as well as the histories of The Flowers—the women who call the property home.  Then there are story books and fairy tales.  For Alice, books have always been a refuge, and discovering the town library is a turning point in her young life, a way of taking back some of her independence.  When she moves to the National Park and has to make her home feel more like her own, one of the things she does is to furnish it with as many books as she can afford, bringing to mind the CS Lewis quote—“When I get a little money, I buy books, and if there is anything left over, I buy food.”  Fairy tales and classic stories are alluded to everywhere in this novel, from the allusions to Jane Eyre made subtly by the naming of the flower farm, to the not so subtle hints at Alice being named after the heroine in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.  For anyone who has found a friend in stories, or an escape, or whatever they needed, Alice’s story will be a familiar one.  She is a heroine to fall in love with, to root for, and to care deeply about. 

This is a novel written with love and with a skilled hand.  It is whimsical without being silly, magical without being far-fetched, beautiful without being filled with purple prose.  I adored it, and I cannot wait to read it again in April.


Five stars.  

Sunday, 11 March 2018

Book Spotlight: You Belong Here by Laurie Steed

A Book Spotlight is not a review-- it's a feature of a book by a person I know and admire.

I don't think it would be incorrect to say that Laurie Steed's debut book has been a hotly anticipated one.  And I say book and not novel here, because for the longest time, I think a lot of people thought that the first thing we saw from Laurie would be a collection of short stories.  He is the short story maestro, the guru, the go-to person for all things short fiction in Perth.  And yet, his recently publishing novel, You Belong Here is in fact... a novel. 

Perhaps it would be more correct to say it's a novel in stories.  There's a bit of room to move there, which I like.

It is the story of the Slater family, Steven and Jen and their three kids, and follows snippets of their lives (the good times and bad) over a couple of decades, all set to an atmospheric soundtrack which I am informed is also available as a Spotify playlist.  Steven, who dreams of being a pilot, works in air traffic control and over time becomes less and less available to his wife (literally and emotionally) as she struggles with the pressures of new motherhood in a brand new city after they move to Perth.  The implosion of their marriage will have aftershocks which shape the lives of their three children, Alex, Emily and Jay, right through to adulthood. 

Yet, while this story is often one about bad things happening, it's also about the ways that love can get a person through those bad times.  It's about the bond between siblings, about the love between parents and children, and it's about friendship in all its guises.

Be warned, dear reader, you will need a box of tissues at your side as you read You Belong Here.

Laurie Steed is a writer who does not waste words.  It is easy to see that this book has been painstakingly and lovingly revised, and the end product is a perfect little novel that feels effortless to dive into.  My only criticism would be that I wanted more-- I wanted to stay with this family for longer than the length of the book could allow.  Which means that I will be going back and rereading it again and again, I am sure. 

One thing that totally amazes me about the book is the skill with which Laurie Steed has crafted his characters.  They are all relatably human, and even when they do terrible things or hurt one another through carelessness, you can understand them, and feel sympathy for the situations they find themselves in.  By using multiple perspectives, and shifting the point of view of the story in each chapter, you get to see the character as they view themselves, but also as they view each other, making for a more even, nuanced portrait of complicated people.  They feel so real that it almost seems you might walk past them on Beaufort Street should you head there after reading.

You Belong Here has been a long time coming, but it's worth the wait. 

Five stars, and well done Laurie!