Monday, 29 May 2017

Book Review: Bloodlines by Nicole Sinclair

Nicole Sinclair
Margaret River Press 2017 (I own a copy, courtesy the publisher.)

Nicole Sinclair's debut novel Bloodlines is set between Western Australia and a small island in Papua New Guinea.  It is the story of Beth, who heads to PNG to work with her father's cousin at a mission school, in an attempt to run away from the recent breakdown of a relationship.  From page one, we know that Beth feels guilty for this breakdown, and that she thinks she has done something very bad indeed.  It's a classic tale-- after a life changing event, the protagonist seeks healing through travel.  But there are many layers to Bloodlines besides this.  Told in a literary style, this is a novel which examines the clash between traditional and Western culture, the hangovers of colonialism, relationships, romance, and the power of female friendships.  Strong women abound in the pages of this book, from Beth herself, to her father's cousin Val, who has run the mission school for many years and lives a single but self sufficient life surrounded by the friends she has made, the island women in the compound such as Lena, who makes her own way in the world despite the objections of her brutish and mostly absent husband, and, in flash back, Beth's mother Rose, who leaves home and strikes out on her own in a new state.

The inclusion of the story of Beth's parents' courtship is an interesting stylistic choice, and one which works very well.  Clem and Rose's romance, while following less of a literary bent than the rest of the book, softens what could otherwise be quite a solemn and introspective narrative, and builds on the character of Beth by hinting at the kind of home life she has had and the kind of people who raised her.  While the reader knows from early on that Rose is not alive for most of Beth's life, as their love story progresses, it's easy to enjoy the gradual unfolding of Clem and Rose's courtship.  I admired the simple way that Sinclair wrote these scenes-- there was no purple prose to be found, no sighing, no hearts fluttering.  While the book probably could have functioned without these scenes, I found them a useful inclusion, and they went a long way to making this story an original and familiar one, grounding it in West Australian life.

Truth be told, I didn't expect to enjoy this novel as much as I did.  I've never been particularly interested in books about healing through travel (not since Eat Pray Love...) but Bloodlines won me over.  I found myself bawling in parts, and this is no mean feat-- the only times I seem to cry in books is when dogs die, so for me to cry over the death of a human character is an achievement on the part of the author.

I highly recommend you pick up a copy of this incredible book.

I'll be in conversation with Nicole Sinclair at the State Library of WA on Thursday June 8th at 5.30pm.  You can book tickets here.  

Friday, 26 May 2017

Book Review: Crimson Lake by Candice Fox

Crimson Lake by Candice Fox
Published by Penguin/Random House, 2017
(I borrowed a copy from the library)

I wasn't going to review this book.  In fact, not being a crime reader by nature, I probably wasn't even going to read it, until the lovely Erin chose it for our June Book Club meeting.  That being said, from the prologue, I was totally hooked, and I read the entire book in a twenty-four hour period.  What made Crimson Lake so appealing, I think, mainly comes down to the excellent characters.  We've seen the sleuthing duo trope done many times before, both in books and on television (it's rife on television!  One quirky optimist + one tough pessimist, one or other of them a cop or an ex-cop etc etc) but in Crimson Lake, while this dynamic is still in play, the characters' backstories feed directly into active subplots.  So really, while the plot of Crimson Lake revolves around the disappearance of a Far North Queensland fantasy writer, there are actually three mysteries to be solved by the reader as they follow along with the book.

First in importance to my mind is the mystery of what really happened to Claire Bingley.

Our protagonist and narrator, Ted Conkaffey, has been accused of her abduction, rape and attempted murder but he's innocent (or says he is, but he hasn't revealed himself to be an unreliable narrator to my mind).  It's completely ruined his life.  And while there wasn't enough evidence to go through with the trial (because why risk getting him acquitted?) the police could still pick him up again any time they like.  After spending almost a year in jail, during which his wife has left him, taking their baby daughter with her, Ted moves to Crimson Lake, up in Queensland's top end.  A place where the crocs sing you to sleep of a night and the cops are bent.

Ted is railroaded into teaming up with Crimson Lake's local Private Investigator, Amanda Pharrell.  They have something in common.  A decade ago, Amanda was convicted for the stabbing murder of Crimson Lake teenager, Lauren Freeman.  She spent ten years in jail.

But the more Ted gets to know Amanda, the more he feels there has to be something missing from her story.  She doesn't seem like the kind of cold blooded psycho killer the world seems to think she is.  Mystery number three.

This was a real page turner, and though like many popular crime books these days, the mystery at its heart is a little convoluted (suspend your disbelief and just go with it), I can't wait to read book 2.  Too bad it won't be out until February 2018...

Monday, 22 May 2017

Book Review: The Hope Fault by Tracy Farr

The Hope FaultTracy FarrFremantle Press, 2017 (I own a copy, courtesy of the publisher)

Australia seems to have a habit of claiming talented New Zealanders for their own when it suits them-- but if the talented Kiwi in question is Tracy Farr, I have no problem naming her a West Australian.  After all, she's originally from here.  Tracy's first novel, The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt was longlisted for the 2014 Miles Franklin Literary Award, and remains to this day one of my favourite novels of all time.  Her second novel, The Hope Fault was released early in 2017, and I have been kicking myself for not getting to it sooner.  More experimental in style than The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt, The Hope Fault tells the story of an unconventional family, who spend one rainy long weekend packing up a holiday house ready to sell it.  

Yet, to sum up this novel in just that one sentence seems horribly wrong to me.  This is a slow burner of a novel, and one which takes its cues not just from polished literary fiction styles, but also the techniques of poetry and film, geology and-- dare I say it, cross stitching.  Farr's prose is beautiful, her imagery evocative without being overdone.  Some of her scenes last for less than a page, and yet she tells you all you need to know to get inside the heads of her cast of characters.  

The novel takes place in three parts.  The first part is the first half of the long weekend, and we meet Iris Diamond, her son, Kurt and her ex-niece/ daughter of her best friend, Lucy, as they drive down to the old family holiday home at a place called Cassetown, somewhere in WA's coastal South West.  Cassetown is named for a geologist, Casse, who drowned on an expedition to the bay.  (Fairly certain that Cassetown is not a real place, though it seems to be based on real places.)  Joining them at the house are Paul (Iris's ex-husband/ Kurt's father), Kristin (the woman Paul left Iris for) and their as-yet unnamed baby daughter.  Much of the depth of this novel comes from the nuanced way the writer explores the complicated relationships between these characters, and the way that they have become family despite Paul's infidelity to Iris.  

The second part of the novel follows the life of Iris's almost-100 year old mother, Rosa Golden, who was once Rosa Fortune, author of Miss Fortune's Faery Tales.  Rosa's life is told backwards, in 100 jigsaw pieces, some like confessions or diary entries, and others, letters.  The task of revealing the secrets that have shaped both Iris's and Rosa's lives in this reverse fashion would not have been an easy  one, but Tracy Farr has deftly managed to create tension in her narrative here and the result takes the reader into the third section of the novel searching everywhere for hidden meanings that not even the characters know.  

Section three is the last two days of the long weekend, the aftermath of a large House Un-breaking party held by the Diamond clan to send their house off in style.  I won't say much about this part of the novel, as you need to experience it for yourself.  

While I would have loved more of something like Lena, I enjoyed delving into the world of The Hope Fault, and was inspired by the craft of the novel-- the way that something as simple as a family weekend down south can be fertile ground for a literary fiction novel which I would not be surprised to see on prize shortlists in the near future.  

Thursday, 18 May 2017

18 000 Words In

After months of 'not feeling it' creatively, it's really great to be back at the desk (or the kitchen table), working on a project.

It's great to be reserving more books than I could possible read over three weeks from two different libraries, in order to immerse myself fully in the dialect of the era I am writing about.

It's great to feel my fingers flying along the keyboard, retyping familiar words.  It's even better when they go off script, adding or replacing words which are defunct or have no place.

It's great to be showing my work to beta readers, getting feedback-- though always jarring to hear that the things I thought I'd done well were not the parts that stood out, and things I'd overlooked were the parts that shone.  Writing is bizarre.

It's great to be drinking cups of tea.  It's even great to be getting so caught up in writing that I forget said cup of tea, only to take a tepid sip an hour or two later.

It's great to want to rush home from wherever I am of a night and sit down at my desk (or kitchen table).

I am 18 000 words in, and this is the first night since I got the edits back that I have wondered-- am I making this book better, or am I making it worse?

The only way out is through.

Back to the desk. Or kitchen table.  Or wherever.

Monday, 1 May 2017

Book Review: The Midsummer Garden

The Midsummer Garden by Kirsty Manning
Allen and Unwin 2017 (I bought a copy)

I have been wanting a copy of The Midsummer Garden ever since I saw the cover a few months back.  Yes... I judge books by their covers, or rather, I lust after them and want desperately to have them in my collection.  Never underestimate the value of a great jacket design, folks!  When I read the blurb for this gorgeous looking book, I was sold.  Multi-narrative historical fiction, a found object tying the past to the present-- yes please.  It sounded like exactly my cup of tea.  The kind of book I could get absolutely lost in.

And boy, did this book live up to expectations!

Pip Arnet is given a big set of cast iron pots for an engagement gift.  Inside, she finds papers with French recipes written on them, and is intrigued.  Who wrote them, and how long ago?  The answer, revealed to the reader, takes us back to Medieval France, where Artemesia is cooking a lavish feast for the wedding of Lord Bouchard to Lady Rose, and thinking of her own betrothed, Andreas.  As Pip and her partner Jack navigate the bumpy road that comes after their engagement, their love story is bolstered by the story of Artemesia and Andreas, who in a sense, watch over our modern lovers and influence their love story in more ways than Pip and Jack could possibly be aware of.

First of all, Kirsty Manning can write.  This is a book that is first and foremost about romantic relationships.  Love, marriage, and all the stages that come in between.  But at no point is the writing sodden with soppy adjectives.  Manning writes deftly about the emotions associated with loving someone in a mature, engaging way.  While anguish, confusion and heartache all have their roles to play, the book never thumps you over the head with repetitious, overly emotional descriptions, which seems to be the way with quite a few books these days.  I think it can mostly be put down to the fact that the character of Pip is so well-developed.  Yes, she's following the story line that belongs with her relationship, but she's also got a lot else going on too-- just like a real woman would.  She's trying to finish her PhD in Marine Biology, she's trying to figure out what she wants to do with her life, she's worried about her sister... and of course she's fascinated by these beautiful old recipes that were found inside a set of pots given to her on her engagement.

Second, this book is relatively realistic.  Looking at the acknowledgements in the back of the book, Kirsty Manning has spoken to a lot of experts to get this right.  And unlike in so many books of this historical fiction/ contemporary fiction blend, there is no convenient, overly expositional revelation of the truth behind the manuscript that Pip finds.  We, the reader get to know the truth, but Pip only ever gets part of it, and she does with that what she will, which is great.  As someone who studied history, I only wish that some of the convenient coincidences that happen in historical fiction could have happened to me.  (What?  Your great great aunt wrote this diary and you happen to have the other half which reveals who the murderer was?  Great.  Thanks.  I love that you just happened to live in the same city as me even though the artefact is actually from half the world away.  NO.)

Put simply, I really loved this book and I think that if you enjoyed books like Le Chateau by Sarah Ridout, Labyrinth by Kate Mosse or The Shifting Fog by Kate Morton, you'll really love it too.

I gave it four and a half stars.