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.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Elimy Down South

If you were wondering why it's been a little quiet here lately, it's because I have been on an adventure in the South and South West of WA for the last couple of weeks.  We began our trip in Albany, then moved to picturesque Margaret River after a week.  It's been a fortnight filled with walking, reading, eating, and more reading, with a little wine drinking thrown in for good measure.  I managed to finish reading eight books in two weeks... a number I am a little astounded at myself because it wasn't like we spent every waking moment with books in our hands... but it is a wonder what some rest can do!

For those of you who are bookworms, we checked out a few choice literary establishments while we were down south, and if you're heading that way too you can check out the following:

* Gemini Secondhand Bookshop, York Street, Albany-  An Aladdin's cave of books with a great selection of sci-fi/ fantasy.  Friendly and knowlegable staff.  I even managed to find a book with a sticker from the bookstore I used to work at on the back, one I very likely sold in the first place.

* Paperbark Merchants, York Street, Albany-  This is a newsagent and bookstore, which is more for the new releases than the secondhand treasures you may be hunting for.  It used to be the Angus and Robertson, but I am super glad to see that Albany still has a bookstore at all after that chain closed.

* Margaret River Bookstore, Bussell Highway, Margaret River-  I've been to this charming store before as I've now been to the Margaret River Readers and Writers Festival twice.  Sadly, they didn't have the book I was desperately seeking (To the Sea by Christine Dibley) but they did have lots of other lovely things.

* Margaret River Secondhand Bookshop, Bussell Highway, Margaret River-  This was a bit of an odd one.  The first time I went there, I traded a Liane Moriarty for a much sought-after Anita Brookner, and I was struck by how hard it was to search the high shelves, and how hot and stuffy it was inside.  But when I went back a few days later to get all the other Anita Brookners they had in stock, I couldn't stop finding hard to get books, or out of print classics that I wanted to read.  It's not as idyllic as your usual secondhand shop but I think the stock is worth it!

Me on the Treetop Walk in the Valley of the Giants, Denmark.  Can you tell I hate heights?

Mammoth Cave, Margaret River

Lake Cave, Margaret River

Jewel Cave, Margaret River

Monday, 2 January 2017

Book Review: Ida by Alison Evans

Ida by Alison Evans
Echo Publishing/ Bonnier 2017 (I own a copy courtesy the publisher)

Ida is the first young adult novel to be published by Bonnier imprint, Echo Publishing.  In many ways, Echo are the new kids on the block, but they are punching well above their weight and have award winners in their stable of authors already.  In Ida, we meet Ida Wagner, an ordinary teenager suspended in the void between high school and university, trying to decide what direction she wants to take with her life.  Except she's not all that ordinary at all. Ida possesses the ability to go back in time to any decision and change the outcome, a power she uses liberally.  She avoids car crashes, she saves plates and cups that get dropped.  The only trouble is that she doesn't fully understand the ability she has.  But Damaris does.  Damaris knows that Ida is not going back in time at all, but shifting to another alternate universe where a different decision was made.  She is pulling her other selves out of their homes and they are not happy about it.  Damaris, a mysterious being from another plane of existence is sent to track down Ida-- the original one-- and put a stop to the shifting before the gaps between the realities is worn away to nothing.

This is a smart and fast paced novel.  Its protagonist, Ida Wagner is very relatable, particularly when it comes to her sassy observations about working in a coffee shop, guaranteed to have anyone who has worked as a waiter or a barista nodding their head in sympathy.  Ida's life is populated with people who don't usually appear in mainstream fiction-- people whose relationship with gender is outside of just male and female.  Her partner, Daisy, is genderqueer and therefore identifies as neither male nor female.  Her cousin Frank may be transgender (there is one scene in which there is a subtle clue).  And Damaris, while not strictly part of Ida's world, is genderfluid.  Yet the book does not go out of its way to try and educate the uninformed reader about these people and their identities.  They just are.  There is the occasional, subtle comment worked in about language choices (them, they are personal pronouns for Daisy, which did take the untrained brain a little getting used to) and about the way that people react to others when they cannot label them with a gender.  I thought this aspect of the novel was well tackled, and I feel like a learned something.

The other thing about this novel which I was struck by was the maturity of the plot.  While the ability to shift between parallel universes is something that crops up in speculative fiction from time to time, this novel felt new and intelligent, and it didn't rush to tie up all the loose ends and questions at its conclusion.  Life is messy and complicated, and we make mistakes-- this is the lesson Ida has to learn, that things will happen and sometimes you can't change them.  The novel's conclusion respects this lesson.  Ida's travel through the parallel lives mean that she has a chance to see different permutations of her own life-- one where she doesn't have Daisy, one where her mother has not died, one where her father isn't speaking to her (though I wasn't sure exactly why), and while there are aspects from a number of worlds she would like to pick and choose and have as her 'real' life, she cannot have everything.

An entertaining and clever read about life, love and knowing what you want.