Friday, 28 April 2017

Book Review: See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt
Hachette Publishers 2017 (I own a copy, courtesy of the publishers)

Arguably one of the most anticipated Australian debuts of 2017, the word of mouth marketing campaign for Sarah Schmidt's See What I Have Done began late last year, when the book was featured at the Christmas Roadshow as a book to look out for.  A fictional account of the 1892 murders of Andrew and Abby Borden, allegedly at the hands of Andrew's daughter Lizzie, melds the genres of historical fiction and thriller, providing a tantalising premise akin to that of Hannah Kent's Burial Rites.

For many people, the name Lizzie Borden won't be an unfamiliar one.  She is the subject of a chilling rhyme, and it's from this that the book gets its title:

Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.

And yet, the book calls into question Lizzie's guilt.  Did she really kill her father and stepmother?  And if so, might she have had a good reason.

The answers are not so simple.

Told from four different points of view, See What I Have Done paints a complicated portrait of family life at 92 Second Street, the house where the murders took place.  There is Lizzie, 32 years old and still living at home, teaching Sunday school.  Her voice is an eerily childlike one, hinting at some sort of stunting in her emotional growth.  Then there is Lizzie's elder sister, Emma, also still living at home after a broken engagement.  Lizzie and Emma are close, but Emma often feels stifled by her sister's neediness towards her.  For Lizzie, Emma is a kind of mother figure, as she took over much of the care of her younger sister after the death of their mother at two years old.  Lizzie is not a sweet, innocent kind of needy-- she is in fact a controlling, manipulative and competitive sort, and at times her treatment of Emma is quite cruel.  Yet Emma seems to let her get away with it, and only seems to gain some measure of control over her life once she goes to Fairhaven to stay with a friend.  She has just begun to relish the freedom associated with not replying to Lizzie's letters when the murders occur.  The second point of view in the book belongs to Bridget, a young, Irish maid who appears to be grossly overworked by the Borden women.  She is annoyed by their strict rules of locking all of the doors in the house, and has made two attempts to leave their service, but both times she has been thwarted by Mrs Borden.  The second incident was on the day of the murders.

But it is the final point of view which is the strangest.  It belongs to Benjamin, a young itinerant man who is approached by the Borden girls' Uncle John, and asked to put the hard word to Andrew Borden about the way he treats his daughters.  Benjamin and John travel to Fall River, with the express intention of Benjamin intimidating Andrew Borden, and along the journey, we learn that Benjamin has had a somewhat violent past and has a reputation for being a little bit of a thug.

Not having known much about this story beforehand, I'm not sure if Benjamin was a real character or not, but his presence at the house on the day of the murders does serve an interesting role in getting the story told, particularly when Lizzie's account is less than sound.

If the author's intention here was to leave the reader thoroughly creeped out, then she has certainly achieved her goal.  Lizzie's voice was unsettling and somewhat manic, and led me around and around in circles until I was thoroughly disoriented.  At times, the writing in this novel became almost a stream of consciousness, with certain onomatopoeic words repeated for effect-- such at tick tick for a clock on the mantle.  Most of the action in the novel takes place in the one house or the surrounding area, on the one day, and the result of this plus the off-beat sense provided by the writing style is a kind of tense claustrophobia-- akin to when a secret is being kept by people in close proximity, which in a sense, was true.

This was an interesting novel, but I wasn't as blown away by it as I had hoped that I would be.  Instead of the kind of historical recreation that I adore, this novel took more cues from a kind of tense, domestic thriller, akin to books like Gone Girl, minus a shocking twist at the end.  I think the writing in this book was stunning, the metaphors and similes fresh and stimulating, the characterisation of Lizzie and Emma in particular was spectacular, and the novel completely distinguished itself from anything else out there.  But I wanted more.  I wanted secrets and twists, and the novel just didn't go deep enough into the why for that.

I gave this book 4 stars.

Friday, 21 April 2017

Back Between the Sleepers once more

Those of you I've met around the place in Perth this year will probably know that I've been working on a collection of short fiction entitled "Well-Behaved Women".  This collection, featuring the stories which have been previously published or shortlisted in other places, as well as some new work I've been developing over the last six months, has been a consuming project.  I was inundated with different character voices I didn't know I'd been storing up for later.  All sorts of things were inspiring me.  The news.  Our trip to Albany.  Classic Australian literature.  People I saw on the street.  I was getting close to having enough stories to start thinking about arrangement.

And then everything came to a crashing halt.  

I mean everything.  My short stories, this blog... even writing in my journal.  I was fresh out of ideas, and what's more, I was completely out of words for the stories I was trying to rework.  

All of this happened at around the time of the Perth Writers' Festival which was two months ago now.  

You see, I handed over the manuscript of my historical fiction novel to a local writer who had offered to mentor me.  I thought I would be fine, that I would work away on my short stories, practise my craft, sharpen the knives of my prose on the metaphorical whetstone so to speak.  But the part of my brain that writes fiction seemed to shut down.  

Okay, I thought.  That's fine.  I'll have a break.  I'll read some of the many novels piling up next to my bed and on my desk and in our living room.  I'll write some reviews.  I'll get myself mentally ready for the next draft of Between the Sleepers.  I had a few months.  I would be fine.  

Essentially, I was going to trick myself into writing again, but I wasn't going to be fooled by myself that easily, as it seemed.  

As time wore on, it got worse and worse.  It reached its apex two weeks ago when I couldn't even bring myself to write during one of the fortnightly Write Nights sessions which I help run at the Centre for Stories.  Writing prompts did not move me, writing books did not move me, listening to Elizabeth Gilbert's podcast did not move me and meditation did not move me.  By this point, I was ropeable.  I had a mini tantrum just the other night because I felt like I was turning into a blocked drain with legs.  

And then, like the clouds parting after a particularly vicious storm, a thought came to me while I was sitting at my desk at work.  Just a simple premise at first, but then layers started to build until I had a character and a situation.  I quickly scribbled them down, and that night, when writing time came around... 1000 words came.  

And then the next day, my manuscript assessment came back.  So now, it's time to get down to business on the tenth draft of Between the Sleepers, and wait for the short story well to fill up again.  

Monday, 17 April 2017

Easter Long Weekend- The Four Day Book Binge

I don't know about all of you, but I find it somewhat frustrating when I go a while without finishing any books.  I've had writer's block lately, and I've also been reading really long fantasy novels that were recommended to me, so I actually was reading-- but it had started to feel like all I ever did was sit around watching television.  It's the Netflix curse.  It's far too easy to turn the TV on now and then realise a few hours later that you've forgotten to do vital things like wash clean clothes for the next day, or take a shower, or exercise.  (Just kidding.  You can't forget to do something you had no intention of doing in the first place... although I really should...)

Anyway, with the glorious prospect of a four day weekend ahead of me (thank you, Easter), I decided to hit the reset button, and set myself a reading challenge.  I was going to finish four books in four days.  Or, to be realistic, I knew that I could probably finish two books in that time, but that if I really loved the books I chose, I could probably make it to four.  So I aimed high.

It's been a great weekend.  Many cups of tea have been consumed.  In fact, I have had so many cups of tea this weekend that my boyfriend is sick of making them for me.  (He shouldn't make such delicious tea, then I wouldn't ask him all the time.)  I've eaten WAY too much chocolate (see above comment about exercise.)  And I've almost finished my fourth book.  I also have a slightly sore back from lazing around so much but I'm not going to dwell on that.

Here are the books I read over the long weekend.

Before they are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie

The last book in the the First Law trilogy.  This was a recommendation from the boyfriend, who loved these books he's devoured all three of these, plus the three companion novels, and is currently reading the recently released short story collection from the same universe.  Yep.  He loves them.  And I can see why.  There are a lot of tropes in fantasy, but Abercrombie's characterisation is complex and challenging, and it's not always true that you can see clearly who the good guys are and the bad guys are.  It's hard to guess any of the major plot points in these books but they've clearly been thought out.  I really enjoyed jumping out of my comfort zone and into the realm of epic fantasy... but gosh did these books take FOREVER to read.  Full disclosure, I was halfway through this book when I woke up Friday.

The Hidden Hours by Sara Foster

I think Sara Foster has really hit her stride with her last two novels, which were more firmly grounded in the thriller genre.  She's a master of making you turn the page, enticing her reading through a trail of breadcrumbs to keep going until the whole book has been read in a single sitting.  I loved that the premise of The Hidden Hours was a murder within the publishing industry, because it was that detail which made this reader who usually avoids crime novels pick up this book as soon as the library got it in stock (in fact, she may have asked the library to get it.)  Through a recent trend in domestic thrillers which feature a central character who is not a detective or part of the police, books like this are challenging the typical and frankly sometimes tired murder mystery genre, experimenting with unreliable, inexperienced and sometimes untrustworthy points of view to force the reader to take a more active role in the investigation.  Though the fact that Eleanor, the main character of The Hidden Hours, was unable to remember her part in the crime because of memory loss led me to think of The Girl on the Train, I relished the way that Foster used clever characterisation to flip notions of 'victim' and 'perpetrator' on their heads.  I definitely recommend you read this.  Make sure you have a whole day free.

The Wrath and the Dawn and The Rose and the Dagger by Renee Ahdieh

A YA/ Romance retelling of the 1001 Nights, The Wrath and the Dawn and it's sequel, The Rose and the Dagger tell the story of Shahrzad, who volunteers to wed the caliph of Khorasan, knowing full well that he murders his brides with a silver cord at dawn.  She enters the marriage intent on getting revenge for the murder of her best friend, Shiva, but discovers that there is more to the situation than meets the eye.  But can that ever excuse what has been done?  I've not finished the sequel yet, and I'll be back in the chair after this to do so, but what I love about these books is the way the elements of the setting and the culture have been gently braided into the narrative, the strength of Shahrzad as a character, and the effortless feel of the romance between the two main characters.  There are no heaving bosoms, there are very few cliches, and I completely believe that these characters belong together without the author having to lecture me about it.  She saves her words for more important parts of the plot.  I recommend if you're going to read book one, you have book two ready to go-- don't make the mistake I made, finishing book one when all the libraries and bookstores were out of your reach.

Now that I'm feeling nice and rested (and actually ready to go back to work... who knew!?), hopefully my writer's block will go away.  
Here's hoping!

Monday, 10 April 2017

Progress Report- Most Anticipated Reads

Last December, I posted this piece about the books coming out in the first half of 2017 I was excited to get my hands on.  But like so many bookworms, I have a habit of never getting around to reading all of the things I want to read-- or, even worse, buying them, and letting them pile up and never reading them.  In an effort to keep myself accountable, I thought I'd check in and see how many of the books I wanted to read I had actually read!

I've removed a few that aren't out yet or have only just been released.

The Fifth Letter by Nicola Moriarty

Have I read it?  Yes!

Did I love it? Yes!  I enjoyed this book so much more than the latest book by that other famous Moriarty and I would definitely put another book by Nicola Moriarty on my most anticipated books list again.  


Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Have I read it? No, but I do own it.  I am hoping to get to it very soon!

A little taster from the blurb on Goodreads... On February 22, 1862, two days after his death, Willie Lincoln was laid to rest in a marble crypt in a Georgetown cemetery. That very night, shattered by grief, Abraham Lincoln arrives at the cemetery under cover of darkness and visits the crypt, alone, to spend time with his son’s body. 

The Possessions by Sara Flannery Murphy

Have I read it? Yes.

Did I love it? The Possessions is already a strong contender for one of my top books of the year. It was dark and delicious with this intelligent, Margaret Atwood style writing and I want more. 


The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel

Have I read it?  Not yet but I do own it.

From the Goodreads blurb: After her mother's suicide, fifteen year-old Lane Roanoke came to live with her grandparents and fireball cousin, Allegra, on their vast estate in rural Kansas. Lane knew little of her mother's mysterious family, but she quickly embraced life as one of the rich and beautiful Roanoke girls. But when she discovered the dark truth at the heart of the family, she ran fast and far away.Eleven years later, Lane is adrift in Los Angeles when her grandfather calls to tell her Allegra has gone missing.

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

Have I read it?  It one of the books on my TBR pile next to my bed.  I still can't believe I didn't read this months ago when I first got the proof copy.  

Read more on Sarah Schmidt's blog if you dare!

Difficult Women by Roxane Gay

Have I read it?
Technically yes, but I didn't finish it.  

Did I love it? No.  I was a bit disappointed in this book. 


The Keeper of Lost Things by Ruth Hogan

Have I read it?

Am I still going to? Probably not!  This was a case of cover lust for me and I have to be realistic--- there are only so many books I can read a year.  

You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman

Have I read it?
Am I still going to?  Again, probably not.  

Trapeze Act by Libby Angel

Have I read it? No, but I own it and I plan on getting to it soon.

This novel is about a young woman whose mother was a world-famous circus performer, worked out on her lout of a husband while on tour in Australia, and tried to settle down in Adelaide...  sounds great, right?  Hurry up January so I can find out!

Came Back to Show You I Could Fly (Text Classics) by Robin Klein

Have I read it? Yes, I finished it last week and I can't believe I read this in Primary School.  There's no way I would have understood all the references to drugs and clinics and prostitution back then.  Still an excellent book.  I am now pondering whether I want to read all of the Melling Sisters books.  

Her Mother's Secret by Natasha Lester

Have I read it yet?  

Did I love it?  I love all of Natasha's books and always enjoy escaping into them.


Armistice Day should bring peace into Leonora's life. Rather than secretly making cosmetics in her father's chemist shop to sell to army nurses such as Joan, her adventurous Australian friend, Leo hopes to now display her wares openly. Instead, Spanish flu arrives in the village, claiming her father's life. Determined to start over, she boards a ship to New York City. On the way she meets debonair department store heir Everett Forsyth . . . (Goodreads)

Ambulance Girls by Deborah Burrows

Have I read it? Just finished it recently.
Did I love it?  It was pretty delightful and made a great weekend read.  My favourite Burrows is still definitely Taking a Chance though.


From Goodreads: As death and destruction fall from the skies day after day in the London Blitz, Australian ambulance driver, Lily Brennan, confronts the horror with bravery, intelligence, common sense and humour.

Gwen by Goldie Goldbloom

Have I read it yet?
No!  And I have had it since before Christmas.  Shameful.

In 1903, the artist Gwendolen Mary John travels from London to France with her companion Dorelia. Surviving on their wits and Gwen’s raw talent, the young women walk from Calais to Paris. In the new century, the world is full of promise: it is time for Gwen to step out from the shadow of her overbearing brother Augustus and seek out the great painter and sculptor Auguste Rodin. It is time to be brave and visible, to love and be loved – and time perhaps to become a hero as the stain of anti-Semitism spreads across Europe.

The Hope Fault by Tracy Farr

Have I read it yet? Again, no!  I am sorry Tracy.  *Hangs head in shame*

Iris’s family – her ex-husband with his new wife and baby; her son, and her best friend’s daughter – gather to pack up their holiday house. They are there for one last time, one last weekend, and one last party – but in the course of this weekend, their connections will be affirmed, and their frailties and secrets revealed – to the reader at least, if not to each other. The Hope Fault is a novel about extended family: about steps and exes and fairy godmothers; about parents and partners who are missing, and the people who replace them. (Goodreads)

The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O'Neill

Have I read it yet? No, but I just got it for my birthday last week. 

Goodreads says: Two babies are abandoned in a Montreal orphanage in the winter of 1910. Before long, their talents emerge: Pierrot is a piano prodigy; Rose lights up even the dreariest room with her dancing and comedy. As they travel around the city performing clown routines, the children fall in love with each other and dream up a plan for the most extraordinary and seductive circus show the world has ever seen. 

The Woolgrower's Companion by Joy Rhoades

Have I read it yet? No, but I think this will be one I get out of the library at some point.  It is definitely a subject I am interested in but I have been drawn to other sorts of books recently.  

From Goodreads: Kate Dowd’s mother raised her to be a lady but she must put away her white gloves and pearls to help save her family’s sheep farm in New South Wales.

It is 1945, the war drags bitterly on and it feels like the rains will never come again. All the local, able-bodied young men, including the husband Kate barely knows, have enlisted and Kate’s father is struggling with his debts and his wounds from the Great War. He borrows recklessly from the bank and enlists two Italian prisoners of war to live and work on the station.

With their own scars and their defiance, the POWs Luca and Vittorio offer an apparent threat to Kate and Daisy, the family’s young Aboriginal maid. But danger comes from surprising corners and Kate finds herself more drawn to Luca than afraid of him.

Scorned bank managers, snobbish neighbours and distant husbands expect Kate to fail and give up her home but over the course of a dry, desperate year she finds within herself reserves of strength and rebellion that she could never have expected.

The Woolgrower’s Companion is the gripping story of one woman’s fight to save her home and a passionate tribute to Australia’s landscape and its people.

Before You Forget by Julia Lawrinson

Have I read it yet? No, which is ridiculous because it won't take me long and I know I am going to love it.  

I have lost count of how many times I have read Skating the Edge.  A new YA book by Julia Lawrinson is always a must-have for me as her words spoke to me when I was a teen and continue to do so now that I am a grown-up (hey, the numbers say so even if the behaviour doesn't!).  Here's what Goodreads has to say:  Year Twelve is not off to a good start for Amelia. Art is her world, but her art teacher hates everything she does; her best friend has stopped talking to her; her mother and father may as well be living in separate houses; and her father is slowly forgetting everything. Even Amelia.

Scorecard: 6/ 22

Hmmm time to get reading I think!  

Have you read any of these?  Let me know what you thought in the comments.  

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Weekend Read: Ambulance Girls

Ambulance Girls (Ambulance Girls #1)
Deborah Burrows
Ebury Press 2017 

This past weekend, I devoured WA author Deborah Burrows's latest book in a couple of sittings.  It was delightful to escape into the version of World War Two London that this talented author had created, and follow alongside the eponymous Ambulance Girl of the title.  Lily Brennan, a young Australian teacher, has being travelling--  working as a governess in Europe for a wealthy family, learning languages-- but when the Blitz begins, she is a member of the Ambulance service and her job is to go out onto the streets and help those trapped or wounded when the bombs fall.  When we first meet Lily, she is crawling through the remains of a bombed out house in order to rescue two children who have been left stranded inside.  We quickly learn that Lily is tenacious and a woman of great moral integrity.  Lily's partner is David Levy, a young Jewish man whose background causes some unrest among his fellow ambulance station workers.  Anti-Semitism is rife, as is an underlying class-based elitism that Lily finds upsetting and outdated.  When David doesn't show up for work one day, Lily thinks for certain that something has happened to him-- and that it was no accident.

This was a quick read, and light-hearted, but unlike many books that may be considered similar, it didn't rely on easy coincidences or deus ex machina to advance its plot.  The mystery at the heart of the novel was extremely well thought-out and Lily Brennan was a great character to follow along with. Her outsider status as an Australian in Britain provided a lens through which to critique the London attitudes of the time, providing a much more balanced view of Londoners during the Blitz than that which has become so stiflingly common.  As for the love story in this book-- well, there had to be one, didn't there!  And when a character is as lovely as Lily, you absolutely want her to get her man.

A fabulous weekend read, four out of five stars.