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Our House by Louise Candlish

 

It looks as if I have fallen at the first 200 page hurdle… I picked this 445 page tome as a holiday read and it was exactly what I needed.

Was it a bit overlong? Yes. Not a taught thriller by any means but it didn’t bother me because of the holiday blinkers I had on.

On a bright morning in the London suburbs, a family moves into the house they’ve just bought on Trinity Avenue.
Nothing strange about that. Except it’s your house. And you didn’t sell it.

When Fi Lawson arrives home to find strangers moving into her house, she is plunged into terror and confusion. How can this other family possibly think the house is theirs? And why has Bram disappeared when she needs him most?

I enjoyed Our House a lot more than I thought I would. As much as I love The Sunday Times I can be flabbergasted by some of their fiction recommendations and this was one novel they heartily recommended so I did approach with caution.
(As an aside – I think my most memorable blog post the whole blogsphere has to be a review of a Sunday Times favourite:  The Girl Before reviewed by Raven Crime {Grand Designs meets Fifty Shades of Grey}).

I enjoyed Our House from the start but did worry early on that I would continually be wading through long paragraphs describing how lucky Fi and Bram were to buy this lovely house before prices skyrocketet – I get it! – but after not too long the story started chugging along nicely with lots of twists being revealed along the way.

The twists and turns as well as the ending didn’t necessarily have me gasping and falling off my chair as the advertising would lead us to believe but I don’t think a book has to do this to still be an enjoyable read.
(I wish advertisers would stop marketing books with taglines such as ‘…with THAT explosive final twist!’ – it will always fall short, I can assure you!).

Overall – Yes! it was a page turner and Yes! there were lots of twists. A perfect holiday read. I am even keen to now read some of the author’s other novels now, particularly The Swimming Pool.

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Smoking Kills by Antoine Laurain

smoking kills

For those of you familiar with my blog you may have spotted my new tagline.

I can assure you that there are oodles of books over 200 pages I would love to read but as an adorable new baby boy joined our family 4 months ago I really need to read most of a book in one sitting otherwise I will never reach the end!

I was very lucky to win a copy of Smoking Kills from Silvia at Book After Book and it was the first book I read after son #2 was born which means I’ll probably always remember it.
(Son #1 in 2014 = Burial Rites).

This novel comes in at slightly over the 200 page mark (224 pages) and I think Gallic Books made a wise choice at publishing small-ish and perfectly formed story.

When headhunter Fabrice Valentine faces a smoking ban at work, he decides to undertake a course of hypnotherapy to rid himself of the habit. He eventually finds himself lighting up again – but with none of his previous enjoyment.

Then he discovers something terrible: he accidentally causes a mans death, and needing a cigarette to calm his nerves, he enjoys it more than any other previous smoke. What if he now needs to kill someone every time he wants to properly appreciate his next Benson and Hedges?

This is a very witty (and very French) novel. It had me hooked from the start. The writing is sharp and Fabrice’s distinct and commanding voice also lured my husband in as he flipped through the first few pages.

I thought the bulk of the novel would be about the series of murders Fabrice commits but it is actually about his love affair with smoking. I wouldn’t guess this would be a topic that interests me but it had me smirking and giggling throughout.

It’s hard to share a lot of the plot other than to say it is a story about Fabrice’s journey with cigarettes coming full circle but in it you will find:

  • modern art
  • unusual murders (both impulsive and planned)
  • a charlatan hypnotist
  • a dire workplace team building exercise
  • herpetology, terraniums and rare frog species
  • a former CIA assasin turned blogger in his twilight years
  • the perfect and most fitting end to the story

Perhaps the best ending to a story I’ve come across for a while.

This list may make it sound like a whacky comedy trying to oudo its rivals but it is deadly serious (in cynicism) and cleverly written. Once you reach the end you realise the author has not included one superfluous detail.

I definitely plan to read more of Laurain’s novels. It’s one of those fine moments when I realise I have discovered a new author with a backlist of titles waiting for me.

 

 

 

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Review: The Life to Come (Stella Shortlist)

The Life to Come by [Kretser, Michelle de]

 

The Life to Come by Michelle de Kretser

Pippa is a writer who longs for success. Céleste tries to convince herself that her feelings for her married lover are reciprocated. Ash makes strategic use of his childhood in Sri Lanka but blots out the memory of a tragedy from that time. Driven by riveting stories and unforgettable characters, here is a dazzling meditation on intimacy, loneliness and our flawed perception of other people.

I can’t believe I’ve never read any novels by Michelle de Kretser. This is an odd memory, but I remember when I moved to London over 10 years ago de Kretser’s novel The Lost Dog had a lot of shelf space at both Brisbane and Changi airports yet I didn’t buy a copy despite buying a few last minute Australian novels to take with me. Perhaps I’ve always assumed I’d not enjoy de Kretser’s work; perhaps I categorised it as commercial fiction. How wrong I was! After reading The Life to Come I’m a little giddy with excitement that I have all her previous novels waiting there for me to read.

So yes, I really enjoyed this novel, particularly the lovely writing style that I found rather soothing.

The novel is more of a collection of short stories with all the characters loosely linked through Pippa, a self absorbed character rather insensitive to others but you don’t really need to like her to enjoy the stories.

I personally preferred the first two chapters, particularly ‘The Ashfield Tamil’ to the later ones and I did wish that the overall story would keep following Ash and the characters we meet early on.

The novel makes a number of interesting (and probably accurate) observations about Australians and literary culture. For example, I liked it when it was suggested to Pippa that she write about the suburbs of Paris where the metro goes above ground, explore the shops underneath the tracks as that’s the real Paris, to which she replied that’s not the Paris Australians want to read about. True.

Overall, this is a novel I enjoyed reading particularly as I discovered a new author with a reasonable catalogue of books I can work my way though.

The big question is – will it win the Stella Prize? No, I don’t think so. I think it is too big and sprawling in scope and the Stella seems to prefer smart, succinct stories. The Life to Come makes lots of relevant observations about Australia but none are particularly incisive.

This novel was like a nice warm blanket keeping me cosy and comfortable rather than forcing me to join a polar bear swim club on an icy winter day. And that is alright by me!

 

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Review: Terra Nullius (Stella Shortlist)

Terra Nullius by [Coleman, Claire G.]

 

Terra Nullius by Claire G. Coleman

Jacky was running. There was no thought in his head, only an intense drive to run. There was no sense he was getting anywhere, no plan, no destination, no future.
The Natives of the Colony are restless. The Settlers are eager to have a nation of peace, and to bring the savages into line. Families are torn apart, reeducation is enforced. This rich land will provide for all.
This is not Australia as we know it. This is not the Australia of our history. This TERRA NULLIUS is something new, but all too familiar.

I really enjoyed this novel. I read most of it in one sitting and was excited to blog about my impressions afterwards (a mark of a good book!).

As much as I enjoyed it, there were some things on my mind as I was reading it:

  • I would have preferred a more authentic historical voice from both the author and each of the characters to feel fully immersed in the colonial setting. However, as I sort of knew the twist that was coming (despite avoiding spoilers*) it didn’t bother me as much as it may have done otherwise.
  • It would have also been nice if the epigraphs at the start of each chapter were in distinct voices. However, after reading at the end that the author based these epigraphs on historical writings about her people, I mellowed in this stance!
  • I’m not a huge SF or spec lit reader but did think this element could have been more innovative.

(*Reviews of this novel are perfect examples of how other bloggers are sensitive about spoilers but newspapers and other media outlets seem to jump and take great joy at revealing the twist).

My response to some comments I’ve seen made by other reviewers

  • It was a little repetitive and verbose as others have said. The detail included about the colonisation of natives and subjugation comes under this umbrella. However, I took an overall impression away from the book rather than mulling over each point.
  • The characters were lacking in depth but this didn’t bother me in the context of the story.

So, it is clear that lots of things didn’t bother me and I just enjoyed the story!

After I finished reading this book, I knew I enjoyed it but didn’t know exactly how I felt about it. I went back to read reviews on some trusted blogs I follow and the main thing I took away is that it is commercial speculative fiction which is different to the fiction I usually read. In my mind, this genre makes it a curveball to reach a shortlist. Yet with this this genre in mind, I can easily overlook all the little niggles I mention above and take away that it was an enjoyable read.

Could it win the Stella? Yes, if the prize is as genuinely inclusive of all genres as it claims.

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Review: The Good People

The Good PeopleThe Good People by Hannah Kent

County Kerry, Ireland, 1825.
Nóra, bereft after the sudden death of her beloved husband, finds herself alone and caring for her young grandson Micheál. Micheál cannot speak and cannot walk and Nóra is desperate to know what is wrong with him. Whispers are spreading: the stories of unexplained misfortunes, of illnesses, and the rumours that Micheál is a changeling child who is bringing bad luck to the valley. Nora, along with her maid Kate and the healer Nance, try and use their world of folklore and belief to heal Micheál.
Based on a true story. 

I loved Kent’s first novel Burial Rites and will probably always remember it as the first book I read after my son was born, when I was finally able to concentrate on more than a single page!

I downloaded The Good People in December 2016 on a trip to Australia but only just got around to reading it. I think I had a fear that I wouldn’t enjoy it if the supernatural element was too strong as I hate stories with fairies and magic realism.

Much to my relief, Kent doesn’t go down this path. What she has created is a brilliant setting – an isolated community who live and breathe superstition without it being extraordinary in any way.

It is a bleak novel to match the landscape. This is similar to Burial Rites (I am sure Kent must tire of people comparing the two) but it just feels so much bleaker. Perhaps this is because it is a hard life for all the characters as they all live in rural poverty. It feels as if there’s no glimmer of a pleasant life for anyone in the whole of County Kerry. Due to this pervading bleakness I did sometimes miss when the character changed and had to go back to the start of the paragraph but this may also be due to the Kindle formatting.

I was really curious about the court case at the end and would have loved to see the case through the eyes of the lawyers and townspeople but I know it was not their story. I will have to use my imagination to decide how they felt about these traditional beliefs and healing methods!

I was also curious to know what Micheál’s affliction was but I have since read online that Kent was purposely vague about this so people couldn’t identify his illness.

Overall, I really enjoyed this novel. It was bleak but not depressing – there is a difference! I didn’t necessarily feel an affinity with any of the three main characters but I didn’t need to as it was the story and setting that were paramount to enjoying this novel. I’m surprised it hasn’t been short or long listed for more prizes.

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Sugar Money – A Literary Page Turner

Sugar MoneySugar Money by Jane Harris

Martinique, 1765. Brothers Emile and Lucien are charged by their French master, Father Cleophas, to return to Grenada, the island they once called home, and smuggle back the 42 slaves claimed by English invaders at the hospital plantation in Fort Royal.

I will begin with my opinion of the book so it doesn’t become lost in the body of my review – this is an amazing novel that will be one of my favourites stories this year. A must read from one of my favourite authors.

I originally bought this novel on publication day last year and even started reading it. However, I was very busy at the time and identifying that it would be such a fantastic read, I wanted to save it for a time when I could read it in a couple of sittings.

Fast forward to March this year. After doing some reading on the French Indian Wars (1754-63) for work and then seeing Hamilton I was inspired to pick this novel up again.

Firstly, the historical setting is fantastic and I spent a lot of time looking things up on my Ipad (maps, phrases, locations, landscapes) out of interest.

Most importantly, the story hooks you from the beginning and Lucien’s voice is distinct and authentic. As the mission progresses the book turns into an absolute page turner. I had to force myself to put it down and go to sleep one night.

I can’t rave about this book enough. Thank you, Jane Harris! I think I can credit you with slaying my 18 month reading slump.

19

Exquisitely Charming: The Women in Black

women in blackThe Women in Black by Madeleine St John

At the very end of the Ladies’ Frocks Departments, past Cocktail Frocks, there was something very special, something quite, quite wonderful; but it wasn’t for everybody: that was the point. Because there, at the very end, there was a lovely arch, on which was written in curly letters Model Gowns.

First Impressions: I loved the introduction by Bruce Beresford. And then – after reading the first chapter I wondered if it was possible to read the whole book in one sitting as I was already in love with it.

Highlights: Where do I begin? It is a genuinely Australian novel written in the style of Austen and the Brontes yet it also has a European feel with Slovenian Magda and her ‘these people know nothing!’. An absolutely lovely novel. I bought my copy on my most recent trip to Australia. The staff member at Readings Malvern helped me pick out a stack of Aussie novels to bring back to London with me. We jovially disagreed on whether we enjoyed some recently published novels but she was so enthusiastic about this novel I took her word for it and am so glad I did! I don’t want to give away any of the story so just read it for yourself.

If I was an editor: I can’t suggest any improvements whatsoever. A perfect novel.

Overall: I don’t hold on to books after I read them but suspect I will keep this one as I will want to read it again.

 

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Daughter of the Southern Cross: My Brilliant Career

my brilliant careerMy Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin

Written with all the high spirits of youth, My Brilliant Career is the unforgettable tale of Sybylla Melvin, a headstrong country girl – passionate, endearing, stubborn, honest – and her fraught journey from rags to riches to rags.

First Impressions: I was surprised at the bold and contemporary nature of Sybylla’s voice! Definitely not what I was expecting for a novel written in the 1890s!

Highlights: I loved Sybylla’s grit and fearlessness. I’m sure her unwillingness to accept the lot of women would have caused outrage in her day. I liken this novel to an Australian mixture of Pride and Prejudice, Emma and Great Expectations. I would have loved this book had I read it in my teens yet it is one of those few novels that would be rewarding for both adults and YA readers.

As an YA reader I probably would have enjoyed the romances (and Sybylla’s fiesty responses) more but now I must say that as an adult I found her stay at Barney’s Gap as a governess to the M’Swat children the most entertaining. Sybylla’s condescending attribution of incorrect spelling to people who she feels are inferior to her reached its pinnacle in these chapters. For instance her use of the word ‘choones’ to describe the songs taught during piano lessons had me giggling. Overall I can say that I loved this novel so much that I almost missed my tube stop. Oh, I will also add that the introductions that Text Classics include (this time by Jennifer Byrne) are wonderful.

If I was an editor: I find it hard to accept that such a unique and spirited heroine such as Sybylla has been (almost) forgotten. I’m not going to come out and say that all school students should read My Brilliant Career (and the thought probably makes many English teachers groan) but it is such a fun story that captures an era in time. Why are these sorts of novels shunned in most schools? Is it still the cultural cringe perhaps? Maybe it can’t compete with the many contemporary issue-based YA novels currently being published but perhaps it could be encouraged as an option for some? It seems a shame that such a wonderful Aussie novel is out of favour.

Overall: A 2016 Sybylla would be a star on social media!

 

 

 

 

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Current Affairs/Personal Journey/Travelogue Mash Up: The End of Seeing

the end of seeingThe End of Seeing by Christy Collins

Determined to discover the truth about the disappearance of her partner, Nick, Ana sets out to re-trace the route he took as a photojournalist on the other side of the world – a journey that saw him presumed dead, on a ship wrecked off the coast of Italy. But Ana doesn’t believe Nick is dead.  As she tracks his journey, she begins to witness the world that Nick saw through his camera – a world in which disappearance is not unexpected.

First Impressions: I knew very little about this novella before starting and I was surprised at how current the issues in the story were. A story of refugees but refugees that weren’t directly threatening Australia’s borders. I wonder if it was intentional to make it more international?

Highlights: You may be able to guess that I found this story really thought provoking. Although it would have been current when the author was writing and publishing it, the current crisis in the Mediterranean makes it even more relevant. However, it is hard to say exactly what the main story is as it is Ana’s personal journey too, as well as a travelogue through many European countries. All of this fit into a novella! Ana’s story was incredibly sad (I won’t tell you more) which makes it interesting that it was paralleled with the plight of countless forgotten illegal immigrants. It is all too easy to disappear and sometimes that is the easier option. I also enjoyed learning about the world of photography and photojournalism.

If I was an editor: It’s hard to think how this could be improved. Perhaps more from the Australian detention centre would have been interesting but I know it wasn’t necessary to the story. I also thought that by the end when Nick’s story was discovered (or was it?) that it was too exacting for where Ana’s story had taken her, like it belonged to a different genre. Or was this intentional given the numerous juxtapositions in the story?

Overall: The End of Seeing was a winner of the 2015 Seizure Viva La Novella Prize and I now want to indulge myself on a weekend reading the other winners of this prize. Sort of like sitting down with a Peirene Press trilogy.

Thank you to the author for a copy of the title to review.

 

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A Perfectly Restrained Saga: The Brothers

brothersThe Brothers by Asko Salhberg

I am embarrassingly late with this review…

Finland, 1809. Henrik and Erik are brothers who fought on opposite sides in the war between Sweden and Russia. With peace declared, they both return to their snowed-in farm. But who is the master?

First Impressions: Wow. I was immediately drawn into the landscape, characters and story. Is the landscape and setting the most important part of this story.

Highlights:  I think the isolation and bitingly chilly environment is the star of this novel as it shapes the characters and the action. Even though there are mentions of the nearby village or regional towns they seem incredibly distant even when the characters visit them. I found the rural-town divide very interesting along with the historical context.
This is a novel of two brothers and their cousin but it is no way a purely masculine story. I particularly enjoyed the stories of the women and finding out how they found themselves in their current situations. Despite the brevity, everyone’s story is told which makes it very clever storytelling.
Also – it is a beautiful edition.

If I was an editor: I did think the Farmhand’s story was one revelation too many – the others were more interesting – but it was necessary to the whole story. I think I’m being a little fussy when making this observation!

Overall: A fantastic epic saga that the author has successfully  restricted to 112 pages. Now that’s restraint! For lovers of Burial Rites and Wolf Winter.