Category Archives: Contemporary Fiction

The Dry by Jane Harper

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It wasn’t as though the farm hadn’t seen death before, and the blowflies didn’t discriminate. To them there was little difference between a carcass and a corpse…

The body in the clearing was the freshest. It took the flies slightly longer to discover the two in the farmhouse, despite the front door swinging open like an invitation. Those that ventured beyond the initial offering in the hallway were rewarded with another, this time in the bedroom. This one was smaller, but less engulfed by competition.

First on the scene, the flies swarmed contentedly in the heat as the blood pooled black over tiles and carpet. Outside, washing hung still on the rotary line, bone dry and stiff from the sun. A child’s scooter lay abandoned on the stepping stone path. Just one human heart beat within a kilometre radius of the farm

So nothing reacted when deep inside the house, the baby started crying.

And so begins the exceptional Australian crime debut from Jane Harper.  With a quintessentially outback flavour, and some common characteristics of a crime thriller: family secrets, teenage mistakes, country town prejudices, a gritty cop with a hidden past; the novel is never pedestrian or cliché.

In the small drought stricken town of Kiewarra, the community is reeling from the shocking Hadler family murder-suicide.  The thought that a decent bloke like Luke Hadler could have been driven to such despair and murder his wife and young son exposes just how fragile anyone out here in the dry really is.  He was one of them.

Police investigator Aaron Falk returns to Kiewarra to attend the funeral of his childhood friend Luke.  A city cop who moved away from the town as an ousted teen, Falk has intentions to stay just long enough to pay his respects, but Luke’s parents urge him to investigate the case.  Whilst the townsfolk are convinced this is an open and shut murder-suicide, pieces begin to unravel causing Falk and the local police investigator to doubt the facts before them.  Soon Falk finds himself trying to untangle two crimes that occurred twenty years apart; with Luke at the centre of both.

There is much hype surrounding Harper’s The Dry.  It won the Victorian Premier’s Literacy award for an unpublished manuscript in 2015.  Rights have been sold in over 20 territories.  There is to be an adaptation into a Hollywood film.  And all the accolades are deserved.

The storyline is a genuine who-dunnit – a classy crime debut that makes you feel scorn and secrets of a small town community, and scratch the sweat and grime of the outback heat from your skin.

In short: Incredible Australian writing; atmospheric, gritty and a proper mystery to the end.

 

 

 

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According to Yes by Dawn French

9781405920575What would happen if you lived your life according to yes? If every time you would typically say ‘no,’ you turned the answer on its head and said ‘yes.’ Would you be happier? Get yourself into trouble? Break the law, or live with satisfaction?

Would you turn a harmless flirtation into something more complex? Would you allow decadence to make way for gluttony? Would you become broke? Or perhaps more wealthy because you took a risk. Could saying ‘yes’ all the time possibly give you a true sense of freedom and contentment? Would it allow you to be who you truly seek to be?

In Dawn French’s new book, our heroine, 38 year old Rosie Kitto, decides to live her life examining this exact concept. It’s a new approach for this eccentric and vivacious character. She has been scarred by saying and hearing ‘no’ for a long time, and looking to heal, she takes a plunge and moves away from her home country and some old ways of thinking.

She moves to the centre of wealth, Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Where the filthy rich hob-nob and exist with decorum and class. Where behaviour, appearance and sophistication matter. It’s a dangerous environment for a quirky, outspoken and wind-swept Brit, wearing bright red brogues.

Employed as a Nanny to the Wilder-Bingham grandchildren, Rosie encounters her exact opposite in Glenn Wilder-Bingham – the family matriarch. She is emotionless, clinical and coiffed. Cold and judgemental in her interactions with the family, and outright hostile to the new Nanny, Rosie.

The dynamic between polar opposites Rosie & Glenn is entertaining enough, but then add curious twin grandsons, an alcoholic divorcee hiding his own secrets, and a likable grandfather with a cheeky streak and the plot becomes pretty gripping.

This is a super easy read, with great pace, laugh out loud humour, and sometimes squeamish moments where Rosie chooses ‘yes’ whilst you are screaming ‘no!’ Yet even as she takes some unthinkable risks (particularly of the shagging nature) and is somewhat irritating in her laissez-faire attitude, she remains unwaveringly likeable.

There are some really funny and honest moments between Rosie and the twin ‘chaps’ which reminded me of my own parenting fails. Like when you know you shouldn’t laugh, but when ‘for fucks sake Mummy’ is just too hilarious coming out of a three year olds tiny mouth. French develops her young characters with particular finesse.

This is a perfect summer read, and Dawn French is fast becoming one of my favourite voices in comedic and dramatic fiction.

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In short: Yes!

Halloween Reads Part II

the woman in blackThe Women in Black by Susan Hill

Why wouldn’t you stay overnight in a dead person’s mansion, trapped in by swamp waters, candles for lighting, and piles of old papers to read through the night? Seems unsettling enough and then you layer in the rumours of a haunting; the woman in black, who curses children of the local township.

 

 

 

 

heart shaped boxHeart Shaped Box by Joe Hill

The debut novel from Stephen King’s son, the tension and thrills during the first ¾ of this story make it difficult to sleep. Every innocent household sound is frightening; particularly the crackle of a radio. Judas Coyne hears about someone selling a ghost on the internet, and when his purchase is delivered it arrives in a heart shaped box. The foreplay in this book is gripping, astounding and breathtaking. The climax leaves you feeling kind of ripped off. Worth it for the initial fun though!

 

 

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Lexicon by Max Barry

This one is a bit of a Sci-Fi thriller, and extremely unsettling. Two years ago something terrible was unleashed in an Australian mining town called Broken Hill. Thousands died. Few people know what really happened. Part X-Men, part zombie apocalypse, you’ll tangle with linguistics and be rattled long after reading.

 

 

 

The-Ghost-of-Miss-Annabel-Spoon2-300x242The Ghost of Miss Annabel Spoon by Aaron Blaby

A scary looking picture story book that has beautifully bleak illustrations capturing the ghost of a sad young lady. She haunts the town and the folk think something must be done about her unwanted presence.

 

No matter what hour, she lurked looking sour,

Be it midnight or mid-afternoon.

Her dresses were shabby, her mood always crabby.

Her name was Miss Annabel Spoon.

With deliciously clever rhymes and a warm ending, this is actually a great ghost story for primary aged children.

 

In a Dark, Dark Wood  – A Traditional Tale

In a dark dark wood, there was a dark dark house

And in the dark dark house, there was a dark dark room…

You know what’s coming but right? As a child though,  the tension is tantalizing.

 

funny bonesFunny Bones by Janet and Allen Ahlberg

A big skeleton, little skeleton and their pet dog skeleton venture out of their cellar at night with the hope of finding someone to frighten. The trouble is, everyone is in bed so they have to satisfy themselves by scaring each other. It’s a bit scary, but in a fun and giggly way.  More nostalgia for me here, with classic line art, block colouring and simple repetitive text. The Ahlbergs seriously knew how to write kid’s books.

Over 30 years on, and this one is still relevant.

 

Lost & Found by Brooke Davis

lost n fI recently had to tell my toddler that our beloved family pet had died. I was dreading the conversation, knew it would be coming soon. Our gentle beagle boy was very old, lived a rich and utterly spoiled life, but was riddled with tumours, and we expected it to be any day.

How do you explain death to a child without frightening them? Without confusing them, or, if I’m honest, inviting questions that I had no idea how to answer.

When I told her, I said ‘I have some sad news.’ Told her that he had died last night and that it was ok for us to feel upset because we will miss him.

“Will he go to the vet?”

“He went to the vet darlin, but he was too old to fix.”

“Will we still see him?”

“No.”

“But I love him.”

And that was it. As a child, she was able to articulate in four words, the unfairness and grief of losing someone you love. As adults, we wrap grief in complexities, in conditioning and expectations of how we should feel. We then add remorse… or worse; guilt, and then try to follow a process that allows us to cope. But ultimately, aren’t we thinking the same thing as my little girl? But I love them. It’s not fair. I want to see them again.  

That childish insight is exactly what makes the book Lost and Found so breathtaking and so engrossing. Death through the eyes of pragmatic seven year old Millie Bird. Millie examines death with curiosity and naivety, and when her own father dies, and her mother abandons her in a shopping centre you will want to bundle her into your arms and take care of her.

It’s clever, it’s authentic, and it’s heartbreaking.

Soon Millie crosses paths with two older characters who are struggling to make sense of loss and love, just as much as their little counterpart.

Karl the Touch Typist is eighty seven when he farewells his beloved Evie, and his son kisses him on the cheek, leaving him in a nursing home. Seeking something else, he escapes the home to go in search of meaning and purpose.

Agatha Pantha is eighty two and has confined herself to her house since her husband died. She is eccentric and belligerent, hurling abuse at passers-by and complete strangers. Until she spies a little girl, obviously living alone in a house across the street.

The writing is perfection. You will slip comfortably into the Australian landscape, as Davis sets the scene with the nuances of our urban and rural culture. You will see Millie in your local shopping centre, see Karl clutching a coffee mug in a café you have visited, and hear Agatha screaming insults from a familiar home on a tree lined street in the ‘burbs.

Davis has created a tale that is both hilarious and healing. It makes you ask questions. It immerses you in each character, their memories and their discoveries.

Whilst the concept of loss is woven into each chapter, there is also an underlying theme of humour, self-reflection, and the intricacies of human interaction. It’s as much about living as it is about death, and at the heart of it all are three lovely characters; unlikely friends who take you on a moving journey to find Millie’s Mum… and something else.

In Short: Read with a lump in your throat and a smile on your lips.

Jasper Jones by Craig Silvery

Jasper-Jones (2)To me, reading a good piece of Australian literature is of equal importance to my cultural identity as Anzac Day, a beach Christmas, a day off for a horse race, and the smell of burning eucalypt.

I love when I read an Australian author and slip into the familiar landscape and scenery, the language and dialect, and the society and ideologies. Like being wrapped in a comfortable blanket, I’m home, at once. However, the good authors always manage to make that blanket just a little bit itchy at times, forcing me to shift position and think on what I am actually cosy with.

Craig Silvery has mastered the art, and it has taken me three months to digest this book and finally write a review. I’ve been mulling over it and chewing on the plot for ages because of the notion that this is close to the best book I’ve ever read.

Set in the regional mining town of Corrigan in 1965, Jasper Jones is a thoughtful, wise, coming of age story. It is heartbreaking, tense, hilarious and riveting.

On a hot, summer night, our reluctant hero, thirteen year old Charlie Bucktin is woken by an urgent knock on his window. An outcast in the country town, mixed-race Jasper Jones urges Charlie to join him outside and help him with a desperate situation.

Jasper had always been a boy who both intimidated and intrigued Charlie. The scapegoat for all the town’s mishaps, but stoic in the face of prejudice. When Charlie follows Jasper to a secret glade across the bush, he bears witness to a horrendous discovery. Forced to keep the secret, an unbearable weight on his shoulders and in his gut, he is thrown into turmoil as all around him the town and his loved ones erupt into fear.

What is so sophisticated and charming about the story, is that while there are horrible things going on in both Charlie’s life, and more broadly the town, he still manages to cope. To carry on like a normal teenage boy; love-sick and precocious, rude to his parents, and sarcastic and playful with his best friend. Perhaps it’s the arrogance of youth, but it makes it so real. It gives the character credibility: even though shit is going down, the rest of the world doesn’t cease to function.

One highlight for me, was the relationship Charlie has with his best friend Jeffrey Lu; an overzealous Vietnamese boy and Cricket tragic. The dialogue between these two made me feel as though I was eavesdropping on my little brother and his friends. So authentic and genuine, I was laughing out loud, falling in love with the wit and sharpness of their exchanges.

This story touched me on many levels. It has a solid and unexpected plot, believable characters, and a familiar but uncomfortable setting that gets under your skin from the first hint of summer heat, sleepless nights, and small town stereotypes.

In Short: Authentic and Amazing. A modern day classic akin to Harper Lee’s Mockingbird.

SPEED REVIEW: The Book of Love by Phillipa Fioretti

book of love2At first glance, this book is full of fluff. References to a self-styled queen of fashion, a dashing Russian, and a ‘seductive mystery that will steal your heart,’ put me way off for fear of nonsense and romance.

However, I was pleasantly surprised when I entered a world of rare antiquities (of the bookish kind) a determined heroine, and a missing boyfriend who may well have met with the foulest of play. Set in a Sydney second hand bookshop, and then landing firmly in the bustling streets of Rome, the pace is fast, the humour dry, and the adventure is palpable.

There is no doubting this book is chick lit. But it also has substance, humour and a good old fashioned mystery at its core, which makes it an excellent beach read or gift for a girlfriend.

In Short: Chick Lit with Substance

The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman

Light_Between_OceansI wish I had the discipline and dedication to write a novel. (And the skill and the plot ideas would also come in handy.) I think what I admire most about authors, is how they can take a simple concept; life, death, love, war, and then layer it with complexities, nuance and drama.

M.L Stedman’s first novel, The Light Between Oceans, is as good an example of that, as any debut I’ve ever read. And the critics agree, with tons of awards to its name.

Stunning and provocative, the underlying story is basic enough. A returned soldier with survivor’s guilt, a woman aching to know the love of a child, a family’s grief, and the operations of a remote lighthouse. However it is the events that occur, told in beautiful, poetic writing that complicate and give substance to the tale.

Set in 1926, Western Australia, the book is iconically Australian – steeped in our past and coastal culture of the time. I even learned some stuff about maritime history.

Tom is a lighthouse keeper on a remote island, Janus Rock. It’s a blustery and isolated existence for him and wife Isobel, the only inhabitants of the environment. They see other folk just once every six months, and they live a quiet and simple life; filled with love, and the everyday practicalities of running a lighthouse.

One morning, a boat washes up on shore carrying a crying infant, and a dead man.  Years later, the consequences of their actions that day unravel, as the truth about the baby is discovered.

As you consume the pages, it is clear what the likely outcome may be. But it’s still surprising, provocative, and absorbing. It’s unsettling to decide what outcome you actually want. I found myself pensive, hours after putting down a chapter, considering the characters, and what I might do in their position.

The writing style is lovely and engaging. Each character has flaws, but is worthy of your empathy is three dimensional and interesting.

This book broke my heart in many ways. I admit I couldn’t enjoy every moment because reading it was emotional and exhausting. But it’s also immersive, and confronting. A story where the lines between right and wrong become so blurred that they almost look the same.

In short: A stunning debut that asks ‘what would you do?’