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Archive for the tag “Book Reviews”

Writer Envy for Burial Rites *****

Burial-Rites3What’s not to envy when a bestselling debut novel, published in 2013, is printed six times in that same year (as it says on my bookshelf copy). Wow!

I’ve just finished reading Burial Rites by Hannah Kent and it’s easy to see what all the hype has been about. Kent’s beautifully written, empathetic novel of the last woman executed in Iceland in 1830 is an enviable telling. Based on the true story of convicted murderess Agnes Magnúsdóttir, it re-imagines the last six months of Agnes’s life, housed with an official’s reluctant host family, awaiting her execution.

The early manuscript won the inaugural Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award; the prize included a mentorship with Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Geraldine Brooks (March, Year of Wonders, Caleb’s Crossing). A bidding war followed the book’s completion and secured an international two-book deal for Kent worth more than $1 million. (More writer reasons to envy!)

Kent first heard Magnúsdóttir’s story as a 17-year-old Australian exchange student to Iceland. The initial six-months of her stay were extremely lonely and isolating in a semi-dark, freezing, small community, without a common language, and it is easy to imagine how she would’ve connected with and become haunted by Magnúsdóttir’s story.

Kent’s powerful rendering of weather in the novel had this reader shivering and imagining herself huddled inside the icy Jónsson badstofa along with the family. The seasonal shearing, slaughter and harvest beautifully dramatised the rhythm of the changing seasons and passing of time, creating a palpable tension that it was not the animals alone running out of time.

Autumn has been pushed aside by a wind driving flurries of snow up against the croft, and the air as thin as paper.

Magnúsdóttir’s specific part in the murder was not revealed in the trial accounts or records, leading Kent to re-imagine Agnes’s part in the crime. Kent has said that where research couldn’t uncover certain facts or sources were contradictory, she had to work out what would be the most logical, or likely situation and in doing so she had to walk an “ethical tightrope”.

The portrayal of Agnes’s part in the crime was the one aspect of the novel that troubled this reader. Without giving away any spoilers, my initial response jolted me out of the narrative. However, upon consideration, it was probably the one explanation that could have worked plausibly for the Agnes character Kent created.

There could be no happy ending to what is an undeniably grim tale with a pre-determined fact based conclusion, still I found Kent’s quiet and sympathetic rendering of the ending emotionally satisfying despite the harsh finality.

It was somehow reassuring for me to read too, while researching this post, that Kent’s mentor, Geraldine Brooks, encouraged her to ‘let a bit more light in’, particularly to what Kent says was originally an even grimmer ending, since I tend to lock out the light a bit in my own novels.

Most of us can only dream of the type of success that greeted Kent’s first novel. But, according to interviews, Kent too suffered self-doubt during the writing. She really set out to gain a qualification and didn’t think the novel good enough to be published. She entered a competition and there you go… A fantastic result and book, Hannah Kent, and a wonderful inspiration to all emerging writers coming along the path behind.

Burial Rites Hannah Kent





Shattered Anzacs and Broken Promises

Mid-way through the year, I realise my pledge to read 52 books in this Year of Reading may have been a bit of an over-estimation on my part. Hey, I know what went wrong, I should have aimed for shorter books. All the ones I’m reading are hundreds of pages long. So from now on, I’m going to leave off the number of books I’m up to and just enjoy the reading.

I’m back into reading the era I’m about to write again for my new historical novel, set during and post WW1. I’m not usually one for war movies or books depicting the grit and gore of battles. My passion lies in the personal, emotional and psychological journeys of my characters, living through those times, but for me to understand how they think, feel and react I must read the books. Some are harsh; so is war. The more I read, the more I cannot believe that WW1 is not a key focus in our education system. Before I began researching four years ago, you could have grown crops of wheat to feed whole suburbs in the gaps in my knowledge. I still have so much to learn, as evidenced in my research trip, but I’m engrossed and passionate about the people and the time enough to set and write another historical saga in the same era as my previous novel. Plus I really need to write and learn more in order to understand what went on and what it was for.

Shattered Anzacs living with the scars of war by Marina Larsson

Historian and author Marina Larsson explores the impact of war disability on the lives of soldiers and those of their families upon their return from WW1. Larsson comprehensively details the effects and attitudes of society, the government, and real families utilising interviews with the offspring of returned soldiers of WW1. Larsson’s text is accessible and highly readable, despite the incredible breadth of her research. The text explores the effects of having a soldier living in the household with an ongoing disability, often a “nervy” and “changed” man. It further addresses the  financial and physical effects and impact on disabled WW1 returned soldiers’ employment prospects.  I highly recommend this excellent resource for anyone writing on the experience and legacy of war.

University of New South Wales Press, Sydney 2009

ISBN: 9781921410550

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

The strength of Birdsong is Faulk’s authentic battle scene descriptions and their shocking psychological effects on the men fighting. He takes you into the trenches and onto the battlefield. And he doesn’t let you escape a single moment of the unrelenting battle morning where tens of thousands went over top to be mown down, caught on the wire or tripped up in the bodies of their mates.  Events in the past are described in captivating detail – as if it’s happening now. The character progression of the main character, Stephen Wraysford, an initially selfish young man who seduces his host’s wife and whom appears to care about nothing and no one, is riveting. Alternating viewpoints enable a steady progression in Wraysford’s mental deterioration and those of his men.

I enjoyed “most” of Birdsong. Except for the modern day viewpoint of Wraysford’s grand-daughter, which to me added nothing to the story. The character Elizabeth discovers/reveals nothing that couldn’t have been shown in “real” story time. The writing in this section also dragged the reader out of the atmosphere of the story and read as pure telling. The book does tend to “tell” a lot but the power of the battlefields prose kept me turning the page. It is a searingly authentic look at what our male ancestors went through and why these men were never the same.

Random House

Epub ISBN: 9781407052564 (Vintage 1994)

An Incredible Crossing – Caleb’s

I can well understand why Caleb’s Crossing, by multi-award winning author Geraldine Brooks, won a Pulitzer Prize. As a lover of historical fiction, I marvel at Brooks’ reconstruction of the language of the 1600s and the depth of her research woven seamlessly into this story.  Caleb’s Crossing is based on the true story of Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, a Wampanoag (Wôpanâak) Native American Indian, who “converts” to Calvinism and departs his people to live with the puritan Mayfield family in 1665. Told through the voice of their twelve-year-old daughter, Bethia, over several years, it traces Caleb’s path through his early study under the tutelage of Minister Mayfield to his graduation from Harvard University at a time when his education was an experiment to some on whether “salvages” could be educated. Caleb exceeded all expectations as did his fellows.

Bethia’s voice rings absolutely authentic. Though I have no prior knowledge of the era or speech of the time or location, the author instils the reader with complete trust she has done her research.

A wonderful read; delightful prose despite a devastatingly sad ending – not from the horrors one might envisage. Thoroughly recommended.

Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks – Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

ISBN 978 0 0073 3353 0  Fourth Estate Harper Collins 2011

The Dressmaker

The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham is said to be a gothic novel. I’m not sure what that means but I did enjoy this rather uncomfortable read. I loved Tilly, the main character, and her calm acceptance and way with her nutty mother. Some truly torrid and horrid characters live within the pages who left me desperate on seeing their comeuppance. The Dressmaker is a dark tale of the clique, small-mindedness of some small country towns and a fascinating look behind closed doors of what I hope were some exaggerated personalities.

When Tilly Dunnage returns to Dungatar and her “mad old” mother, the locals maintain the rage that banished Tilly decades earlier. They think nothing of using her skills as a talented dressmaker though and for a time it seems Tilly may have been accepted back into the fold. Deliciously wicked, but I’m not so sure the ending was entirely credible. I recommend The Dressmaker as a good read that never lets you get complacent and keeps you reading with some excellent, sometimes heartbreaking, plot twists.

Book 9

The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham 2000

Duffy & Snellgrove ISBN: 1875989706

Year of Wonders

How do I talk about a book without gushing adjectives when my cheeks are glowing with writerly admiration and, in equal, turning green with writer envy?  A hard call when I’ve just read what’s now up there as one of my favourite books ever.

Geraldine Brooks Year of Wonders is an historical fiction tale, based on a true story, of a Derbyshire village who elect to quarantine themselves and their plague in the Spring of 1666 and spend a year cut off from the world. The writing is beautiful prose and evokes a strong sense of authenticity.  For me, it’s a page turner that reached a very satisfying twist of an ending. However, I do need to add that I (along with others, it seems on Goodreads) did qualm  over the epilogue, which took the story out of the world of the village to a happily ever after that I was not sure could or would have been possible for such a young, ignorant, unworldly girl of the day.  However, I deeply admired the writing, the storytelling and the wonderful drawing together of the plot threads to a powerful and unexpected resolution that I won’t spoil here by telling. The voice captivated me and I found the book in my hands at every opportunity for the two days it took to read it. A “must read” for anyone who loves history and place.

Book 8

Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks 2008

Harper Perennial  ISBN: 978 1 84115 458 9

Some books do, Some books don’t

And when they don’t do it for you, do you keep reading? I do. But… Life is short. Too short to persist sometimes. Back into the year and the weeks are zinging past. I’m already beginning to panic over my challenge to read a book a week. I can see these mini review blogs will become more sporadic and more often lists, but for now, I’ll keep commenting on the books I am reading. The last one though saw me page skimming by the last quarter – and only in fairness to the challenge did I keep reading at all. Not sure I’m going to persist with books that “don’t” do it for me in future. So many books, so little time.

Week 3 Book 3

Once again this January, I participated in Month of Poetry hosted by the wonderful poet and organiser Kathryn Apel. In lazy holiday mode, I wasn’t sure I could live up to the promise of the Post a Day poets, so I registered for the Occasional Poetry pages. I thought for awhile that I fell a bit short in not writing a poem a day, but I was really pleased to finish the month with seventeen completed poems. Of course, they all need much refining, but I think a couple of them show actual promise.

Some days the words and ideas just flowed, others I needed a little prompting. Plus I wanted to get stuck into some poetry basics. So I read and worked through some of the exercises in Creating Poetry by Ron Pretty. I recommend this book for all beginner poets to learn forms, sound patterning, imagery and metaphor in poetry, and to tackle some inspiring exercises that act as great, creative launch pads. The book is totally accessible and highly readable, and inspired a couple of my favourite poems from the Month of Poetry.

Creating Poetry by Ron Pretty (Revised Edition) Five Islands Press (1987) 2001

Week 4 Book 4

Bestseller A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle was first published in 1989 and is the non-fiction account of the twelve months from when British expat Mayle and his wife moved into their impulse, holiday purchase to one year and many gastronomic delights later. Mayle details the four seasons, the antics and exhorts of their new neighbours, crossing the cultural divide, some humorous uninvited visitors, along with descriptions of the etiquette and elongation of French tradesman renovating their house. The detailed description that won me in the early pages, where I vicariously enjoyed the laid back lifestyle of French provincial life, tended to wear on me and turn repetitive by mid to late in the book. I know it was non-fiction, not fiction with a rising tension, but after charting a few unhurried months, I’m afraid each began to bleed into the next. Towards the end I found myself skimming pages.

I doubt the Provence of the late 80s, when Mayle first settled there, and the Provence of today are much similar, but I still hope to find some of those homey French cafes in small villages and some of the delightful French characters that pepper his book when I drop by. A tad elongated a read for me but it should grab those wishing to visit or relocate to Provence.

A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle Penguin Books 1980 ISBN 9780141037257

A “Must Read” YA

Year of Reading: Week 2 Book 2

One book in particular has been crying out to be read from my TBR pile for twelve months. I’ve held off, but with the dread that someone or a casual word somewhere would give away the ending of a story and book that has come so highly recommended.

At last I’ve finally had the chance to read Six, Karen Tayleur’s brilliantly tense and riveting YA coming-of-age story.

One car

Five seatbelts

Six people

This out-take from the prologue, alongside the four line story rhyme introduction (each chapter features) There were six in the bed, and the little one said, ‘Roll over, roll over’ So they all rolled over and one fell out…suggested to me that only one character survives the car crash so hauntingly shown in aftermath within the prologue.

The tension builds as you come to know each of the six main characters, shown through both first and third-person viewpoints, and fret over who may or may not survive. I’m not giving anything away, except to say I was shocked and that the ending is inspired, brilliant, inescapable.

Six – a fantastic read, and read again book. Highly recommended.

Six – Karen Tayleur Published by Black Dog Books 2010       ISBN: 978 – 174203155 – 2

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