Saturday, 27 January 2018

Book Spotlight: The Sisters' Song by Louise Allan

I first met Louise Allan several years ago, when we were introduced via Twitter.  I was looking for feedback on my work-- not getting quite what I needed when I asked my family to tell me what they thought of my work in progress.  It was Annabel Smith (author of Whisky, Charlie, Foxtrot) who suggested that I invite a couple of other local writers to meet up and talk writing, and one of those writers was Louise.

From those early meetings, when we swapped manuscripts and navigated the tricky task of giving each other feedback without damaging any egos too much, to today, when Louise's book is in print and is going incredibly well, she has become a great friend of mine: reliable, honest, compassionate and dedicated to the things that she believes in. I feel incredibly lucky to count her among my friends, and am incredibly proud of how far Louise and her book have come.

Louise's novel The Sisters' Song was released in Australia on the 2nd of January, 2018.  It is the story of two sisters, Ida and Nora, growing up in Tasmania in the early 20th Century.  Nora shows an aptitude for music from an early age and dreams of singing on stage one day, just like the great Nellie Melba, while Ida dreams of surrounding herself with a big family.  Yet life, it seems, has other plans for these two sisters.  The Sisters' Song is a beautiful novel about heartbreak, sisterhood, and womanhood.  Of course, it is also a novel about the power music has over us, and there are several stunning passages about the way a person can feel transported by a well-executed performance.  It is obvious from reading that Louise Allan is someone who feels music deeply, and knows it well.  But the themes which stuck out to me the strongest, and the ones that I could relate to the most were about what it means to be a woman, and about what happens when your dreams remain just out of your reach.  Louise Allan explores these masterfully through her two protagonists, and delves deeply into the idea of motherhood and the demands it makes on the individual to give up other things in order to raise a family, particularly at that time, when it was expected by society. The balance between art and motherhood, still a tricky one to achieve today. But it is not a bleak book, for all that it's very realistic. The heartbreak felt by each of her two characters is balanced out by the strength and loyalty that they show towards each other, and the love that they show in holding their family together. 

This is a book that has to be read to be fully understood.  Reviews and blurbs are always fairly reductive, and each reader is going to take away something a bit different from this beautiful, multi-faceted book.  There really is a bit of something for everyone.  It is a book club read, it is a birthday gift, it is a book to sit in a cosy armchair with, devouring a cup of tea and a chocolate biscuit.

I will be treasuring my signed copy of this book and look forward to whatever Louise chooses to write next. 

Sunday, 7 January 2018

Book Review: The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel

Hodder & Stoughton Publishing, 2017 (I own a copy, courtesy of the publisher)

When Lane Roanoke receives a telephone call from her grandfather, telling her that her cousin Allegra has gone missing, she is forced to confront the things she learned about being a Roanoke Girl eleven years earlier when she ran away from the family home.

Roanoke girls are beautiful, rich and mysterious, but they also have a habit of running away or killing themselves.  The summer that Lane turned 15, when she first came to the Roanoke properly outside Osage Flats, Kansas, she was leaving an unhappy home.  Her mother, Eleanor (also a Roanoke girl), had been plagued by melancholy Lane's entire life.  After her suicide, Lane learns that her grandparents, whom she has never met, want to take her in.  Not just will take her in, want her.  Lane discovers what a happy, loving home is for the first time in her life, and she meets her cousin Allegra who has been a Roanoke girl since she was born.  But while on the surface, the Roanoke family seem to be perfect, Allegra's mood swings and strange stomach illnesses make Lane question what might really be going on.  And when she finds out, she runs away, not to return until Allegra's disappearance.

Some of the covers of this book call it the taboo-breaking thriller of the year. Certainly the ideas in the book are a little confronting, and you'd need to have a strong stomach to deal with the rising creep factor as you read.  But I get the impression that the author has tried to hold back as much as possible when writing about Roanoke's dark secret, because she's given herself the difficult task of having to make the readers understand why anyone went along with it.  And if you're planning on reading this book and don't want to get any spoilers, I recommend that you look away now.  Because Yates Roanoke, the family patriarch, has been carrying on romantic and sexual relationships with all of the Roanoke girls-- and they all believe that they love him.  Some, knowing it's wrong (like Lane's mother Eleanor) escape the house, but can never escape the feelings.  Others end it, like Yates' younger sister Sophia, who could not cope when his attentions began to turn to his daughter-niece, Penelope.  Frankly, it's quite unpalatable, so I am glad Amy Engel chose not to bash us over the head with this dark secret.

Our story is told by Lane, switching between the present day, when she returns to help look for Allegra, and the past, when she first arrived at Roanoke.  Interspersed throughout the book are short pieces from the points of view of other Roanoke girls of the past, telling their stories, telling why they did it. Some are gleeful, and excited about the way things are unfolding. Others are filled with jealousy, or are angry, or sad.  But ultimately, these short segments are just glimpses, and don't give us enough of the picture.

This was a fast-paced read, and Lane's voice was one I enjoyed following. She's a damaged survivor, and her relationship with local boy, Cooper, is one of the most enjoyable parts of the book.  Contrary to the way the set up leads you to believe things will go down, it is not Cooper who saves Lane at the last minute, but Lane who saves herself, and I respect that.  Allegra is a different kettle of fish.  She's manipulative and deceitful and very moody-- harking back to the victim of the eponymous book Lolita if you ask me, right down to the provocative, age inappropriate dress and behaviour.  She treats the people around her extremely poorly, but there's something fragile and vulnerable about her that makes her endearing.  Lane tries to get her out of there, but she's in, she's stuck-- she likes it there-- and so Lane blames herself for leaving Allegra behind.

The writing in this book is good-- not too dramatic, not to sparing.  Engel vividly conjures up the small American town on the page, and fills it with characters who seem to walk and talk on their own.  I think for me, because of the nature of the secret, the plot was never going to be wholly satisfying.

I gave this book three stars.

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Book Review: A Vineyard in Andalusia by Maria Duenas

Scribe Publishing, 2017 (I own a copy courtesy of the publisher)

Scribe Publishing, 2017
I was in the mood for a big, historical novel when I chose A Vineyard in Andalusia off my teetering TBR pile just before the new year. Clocking in at a little over 500 pages, this novel promised adventure and romance, and to top it all off, it had a recommendation from Kate Morton on the cover. Expectations were high. And for once, I was delighted in having those expectations surpassed. A Vineyard in Andalusia is so much more than a light-hearted historical romp-- it has a bit of everything, and in following the travels of Mauro Larrea, I constantly found my thoughts shifting to reading one of my favourite classics, The Three Musketeers.

The book is set around 1860 and follows Don Mauro Larrea, a mining mogul from Mexico who has just learned that the big financial risk he took, commissioning mining machinery from an American despite the threat posed by the civil war, has left him totally bankrupt. He has no choice but to sell everything that he owns and try to find some way to rebuild his family estate. But, he is rich and powerful in his home town, and had the fates of his two children to think of, so he and his estate manager, Andrade, try to save face. Larrea takes out a loan from a notorious money lender, and promises to pay one third of it back in four months, or else risk losing his family home entirely to the money lender and his family.  Then, he tells everyone that he is off to seek investment opportunities in Cuba. What he finds in Cuba will set in motion a string of events that will take him half way around the world, and help him find a love he was not even aware he was looking for.

On the surface, this had the potential to be quite a dry book, a lot of it being about money and property transations.  But Larrea is a bit of a rogue, he takes risks, he broods, and he doesn't always play by the rules.  He is both a fiercely loyal friend and father, and a formidable opponent.  Following his exploits through the 500 or so pages, we see Larrea seducing the daughters of government officials, besting his rivals at all night billiards games, kidnapping, climbing tall buildings to rescue a damsel (and her husband) in distress, freeing slaves, and so much more.  Taken into its parts like that, it sounds a little bizarre, but it is the skill of Duenas' world building, and of course of the translation, as this book was originally written in Spanish, that make it a romp of a read.  Duenas' settings of Mexico, Cuba and Spain are richly peopled and feel right both for the time and place that they are supposed to be. Her characters are interesting and larger than life-- I think this book would make an excellent Netflix mini-series just for the sake of seeing who they would cast to play Carola Gorostiva, the slightly unhinged femme fatale. 

The trick to this book, perhaps, was not overdoing it with flowery descriptions, and leaving the lushness of language to the dialogue-- giving the speech of certain characters a more appropriate feel for the mid 19th Century setting, while also lending a hint of foreignness to this English edition.  The romantic element of the story too was understated, and felt natural.  While there were occasional descriptions of heaving bosoms, it was right for the story, and the swashbuckling tone that had already been set.

I expected to find this book so so, but instead, raced through it and found myself eager to return to its pages each time I had to take a break. 

I gave A Vineyard in Andalusia 4.5 Stars.