Saturday, 16 June 2018

The Lily and the Rose by Jackie French

The Lily and the Rose
Jackie French
Angus and Robertson Publishing, 2018

If you haven't read the previous book in this series, you can read my review here.

Sophie Higgs, heiress to the Higgs Corned Beef Empire was a Rose of No Man's Land during the First World War.  She set up and ran successful field hospitals, and even found herself dashing across occupied France in an attempt to stop an attack of mushroom gas against soldiers in Ypres.  Now, the war is over, and Sophie must find a way to return to her normal life-- if life for Sophie can ever be anything like normal again, that is.  When she receives word from Germany that her friend Hannelore, the Prinzessin von Arnenberg and a fellow graduate of Miss Lily's Lovely Ladies, may be in trouble, she resolves to rescue her and take the former Prinzessin, now without lands or income, home with her to Australia.  Accompanied by the wife of an English aristocrat who has a penchant for violence, as well as two of the servants whom she met and befriended at Shillings while living with Miss Lily, Sophie dashes into a Germany which has been irreparably changed by the war, before heading home to Australia to convince her father that she is ready to take over the family business, despite her gender. 

I enjoyed reading the next chapter of Sophie's adventures, but at times, the plot of this second novel was a little all over the place.  Rather than being one grand narrative, the sequel follows a number of smaller episodes, and covers themes such as domestic assault, the rise of the labor movement in Australia, women in politics and business, the plight of returned soldiers, and the rise of a new order in Germany.  It's a lot to take in.  I read this novel quickly and eagerly, but did not feel quite the same way as I did when I finished book one.  I think in the future I would be inclined to reread the first book but would perhaps not go on to reread further than that. 

Sunday, 3 June 2018

Things I Have Been Reading Lately

I haven't been much in the mood for blogging lately-- this time of year has been extremely busy, and when I get home from work, all I want to do is either read or watch television.  My programs of choice lately have been 'Sweetbitter' and 'Silicon Valley', and maybe this tells you a lot about my state of mind, but all I have wanted to do is watch episode after episode until I fall asleep.  Sadly, even in this age of binge-watching and Netflix, shows run out of episodes eventually.

But outside of TV time, I have been reading some excellent books lately, so in lieu of a proper review, I thought I'd let you know what's been on my nightstand lately, and give you a quick little update of what I thought.

Trick of the Light by Laura Elvery

I met Laura a year ago on a panel at the Margaret River Readers and Writers Festival.  She'd just won the Margaret River Short Story Competition, and so we were book mates in Joiner Bay and Other Stories, Laura having written Joiner Bay.  She did tell us then that she had a full length collection in the pipes, and in March this year that collection was released by UQP.  It is quite an interesting collection, encompassing stories that use a few different approaches to the form, including some magical realism and some historical pieces.  No surprises there that my favourite pieces were 'Trick of the Light", about women working in a watch factory, painting the radium on watch dials in the early 20th Century, and 'Brushed Bright Bones', about reincarnation and Richard the Third.  These stories do tend to favour the 'moment in the life of' style, and don't necessarily offer closure or enlightenment, but if that's your cup of tea, you will be delighted because Laura has a way with words.

The Girls in the Picture by Melanie Benjamin

After saying that I loved Melanie Benjamin's books and being really excited about her new book, this one was a bit of a disappointment.  It wasn't one I was tempted to devour in a single sitting like this author's previous books and I found some of the writing really clumsy and overblown.  Perhaps it was because I'd just come off such a literary book and I was making unnecessary comparisons.  If you're new to Melanie Benjamin, maybe start with Alice I Have Been instead.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

I love this book so much, I love its turns of phrase, I love its portrayal of a marriage tested, I love the statement that it makes about the racial politics of America and I just love it, so go read it.  Thanks to Amy from my Book Club for picking it for this month.

Redemption Point by Candice Fox

I've been waiting for this sequel since reading Crimson Lake last year.  I don't usually read crime, but I really like these.  Maybe it's the fact that the main character has pet geese?

The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer

My first Meg Wolitzer book but it won't be my last.  This was the book that I needed, when I needed it.  It's about a young woman who meets a feminist icon when she's at college and has been going through a tough time, and the trajectory that this meeting sets her on, and the way that it prompts her and the people around her to make changes and enrich their own lives.  It's also a cautionary tale about hero worship.  It's bloody good.



So that's me over the last month or so... what about you-- what have you all been reading?

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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.