Category Archives: Literary Fiction

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.

The site of the last execution in Iceland, where Agnes was beheaded.

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Burial RitesYet again a book has sent me falling down a rabbit hole.  I am fascinated, engrossed, compelled to find out more.  More about Agnes Magnusdottir, the last woman to be executed in Iceland in 1830. And here I am google imaging her, scouring Wikipedia, and historical records in search for an image, a grainy photo, a look at her handwriting or court records, or something more to put a face to the main character in Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites.

So powerful is this debut novel, that I feel as though I know Agnes’ intimate and innermost thoughts, and at the time of reading I felt the icy chill of the inhospitable country, the heartbreak, the indignity and isolation.

Of course I love a good piece of historical fact-ion; a reimagining of true events that occurred over 180 years ago.  After visiting Iceland as a mere 17 year old, Hannah Kent was inspired to research and interpret the life and execution of Agnes, who was sentenced to death for her part in the gory murder of two men on a desolate farm.

While awaiting execution, Agnes was housed in the rural home of an official, Jon Jonsson, and his wife and daughters.  In Kent’s novel, the family is horrified to have a murderer in their midst, and are scared and disgusted at times by her presence.  However, her sheer human-ness and vulnerability fascinates Jonsson’s wife Margret, and soon the family are conflicted by an unavoidable sympathy, and a begrudging like for Agnes the woman.

There are moments in this book that are truly breathtaking.  Details of the brutal murder emerge gradually, as do the hardships of Agnes entire life.  The end will have you utterly convinced that Kent was there, 183 years ago on that chilly hillside.  And a simple gesture made towards Agnes in her final hours will have you sobbing for its simple and divine meaning.

Kent spent much of her life planning and researching what is a remarkable and moving novel.  I am envious of writers like her: people who have the ability to pick away at facts, and find their own interpretation of a story.  But to tell that story with such truisms and authenticity that it is hard to dispute the reality of it.  So Hannah, I am supremely jealous of your talent, but moreover grateful that you have slaved away to perfect and deliver such a gem to hungry readers like me!

In Short: As crisp and breathtaking as the chilly landscape of Iceland.

 

Picture above: The site of the last execution in Iceland, where Agnes was beheaded.

Photo Credit: http://bit.ly/1hFAO8V

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.

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?’

The Secret Fate of Mary Watson by Judy Johnson

secret fateRemember in Primary School, when the theme for the term was Australian History?  You learnt all about Captain Cook, convicts, bushrangers and the gold rush.  If you were like me, you were fascinated by all the morbid details; death by scurvy, being gaoled for stealing bread, and the fact that teachers could dish out corporal punishment – ‘the strap’ was both terrifying and intriguing. The idea of a wooden school desk that opened from the top was tantalising, and the leather boots corsets and petticoats were even a bit princess like.  Did you get an old fashioned sepia photo from a pioneer settlement tourist park?  “No smiling children, no one looked happy in the olden days.”ye-olde

There wasn’t much reference to indigenous history, really.  Many of the ‘natives’ died of the flu (much like the allusive dinosaur) and they carried spears, boomerangs and women weren’t allowed to play the Didge. Oh, and there was the painting lesson where you broke up rocks and mixed them with water to create a new graffiti tool.  And during play-lunch, amateur pyros would try to start fires by rubbing sticks together; delighted and nervous squeals from the girls ensued.

Despite the gaps, I loved Australian history then.  I still do.  And so I loved this book.

The Secret Fate of Mary Watson is a compelling tale. Fiction mixed with historical events, mystery underpinned by actual journal entries from the late 1800s.

In 1879, 19-year old Mary Oxnam fled her family home in Queensland.  She was plain, penniless and alone, but had determination, independence and a feminist wit I didn’t expect to come across for the era.

Mary finds a job as a pianist in a Cooktown brothel, while her intelligence and stealth land her a lucrative, but dangerous, side-job as a spy. Embroiled in smuggling, espionage and a dirty trade for her day job, the tale is gritty and thrilling, and far from you typical history lesson.

All the characters Mary encounters are shady: it’s clear that she’s in danger – no matter who she’s siding with – but she knows it, which makes her both frustratingly risk taking, and remarkably brave.

She marries a brute for convenience and soon moves to Lizard Island; remote and crawling with all sorts of enemies – both natural and human. 

Her time on the island is intense and suspenseful.  Her living conditions are squalid.  Her marriage is quite revolting.  Her emotions are palpable and the rugged desolate environment is described as both threatening and beautiful.

Based on actual journal entries written by our heroine, the author has presented her own interpretation of Mary’s events which are speculative while compelling, heart wrenching and bleak.

An amazing and creative insight into a little known aspect of our history. 

 

In short: typically Australian, bleak and beautiful.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Erin-Morgenstern-The-Night-Circus

The Circus arrives without warning

no announcements precede it…

It is simply there, when yesterday it as not.”

The circus ‘opens and nightfall, closes at dawn.’

The Night Circus is a dazzling work that can make you dizzy with its playfulness and intrigue.  It’s utter fantasy, charged with romance, danger, haunting and history.  There’s a contortionist, psychic twins, a runaway boy, a leap between eras, an invisible man, and an unpleasant bet.

Jumping between eras of the late 1800s and 1900s it can be tricky to concentrate as you figure out which timeframe you have landed in.  However once you’ve mastered the magicians, circus performers and patrons you’ll get a tease of each of their back-stories and want to delve deeper.

The Night Circus is the story of two magicians destined to do battle with each other since childhood.  This competition is the by-product of a cruel and depraved wager between their masters who have taught them everything they know.  There are no magic wands, no spells or potions.  This magic is for grown ups – the power of invention, imagination and telekinesis.

The visual description of the circus itself is enough to sustain your interest.  Each tent is mythical, magical and evocative, but then there is this other haunting component of the past, personal conflict, emotions and obstacles

If I’m sounding vague and confused, well then I suppose I am.  There are so many levels to this fantasy, and it’s exhausting to try and explain.  Ultimately the circus is rich, inviting and pleasurable to explore, but it has an underlying darkness as the chapters progress and you know that the inevitable battle between the magicians is going to be epic and harrowing.

In Short: Magic for grown-ups

The Wild Girl by Kate Forsyth

WildGirl_COVERI’m sure you’re familiar with once upon a times, and wicked step-mothers, poison apples, Prince Charmings and cottages in the woods.  I’ve always been captivated by the darker side of fairy tales, and the fact that the Brothers Grimm did not originally scribe such tales for children to enjoy.  For instance, did you know that Cinderella’s evil step mother made her ugly daughters slice off their heels with a knife to try and fit into the glass slipper.  The Prince only realising the truth when he noticed blood pooling in the shoe?  And our heroine Snow White was not merely sleeping, but dead when her Prince found her, and in an unsavoury twist, he fell in love with her rotting corpse and made his footmen carry her body in a glass casket?

Kind of gross right?  But darkly fascinating too.  And these folktales, coupled with a beautiful historical narrative, make The Wild Girl an excellent read for literature and history lovers alike.

Set in the early 19th century, as Napoleon Bonaparte invades most of Europe, we meet Dortchen Wild, a twelve year old girl who lives next door to Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm.   The Grimm Brothers are scholars, living a poor existence, but determined to publish a collection of translated folktales and stories.  They collect the tales from women they become acquainted with, including housemaids, Mothers and townsfolk, as well as the Wild sisters who live next door.

Dortchen falls in love with Wilhelm the moment she lays eyes on him, and over the course of two decades she tells him the tales that will one day become his famous published works.

Set in a time of drama, poverty and war, Dortchen not only battles her forbidden feelings for Wilhelm, but struggles with starvation, cold, grief and oppression.  Not to mention her day to day dealings with a tyrant of a Father.

I love that this book has intertwined the few facts known about the real Dortchen, with speculative events.  Forsyth has cleverly weaved Dortchen a fictional narrative that is believable and moving, intense and suspenseful.

The style is easy to digest, with language and dialogue reflective of the era.  As you read, you are transported to the kingdom of Hessen-Cassel and the stories that Dortchen relays are vaguely familiar yet somehow distant, and they all will give you goosebumps in the telling.

In Short:  With a sprinkle of literature and love; historical faction at its best.