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BOOK REVIEW: The Dark Lake by Sarah Bailey

Monday, October 29, 2018

 

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

The lead homicide investigator in a rural town, Detective Sergeant Gemma Woodstock is deeply unnerved when a high school classmate is found strangled, her body floating in a lake. And not just any classmate, but Rosalind Ryan, whose beauty and inscrutability exerted a magnetic pull on Smithson High School, first during Rosalind's student years and then again when she returned to teach drama.

As much as Rosalind's life was a mystery to Gemma when they were students together, her death presents even more of a puzzle. What made Rosalind quit her teaching job in Sydney and return to her hometown? Why did she live in a small, run-down apartment when her father was one of the town's richest men? And despite her many admirers, did anyone in the town truly know her?

Rosalind's enigmas frustrate and obsess Gemma, who has her own dangerous secrets—an affair with her colleague and past tragedies that may not stay in the past.


My Thoughts:

So many brilliant contemporary crime novels being published in Austalia right now! It’s like a new Golden Age of detective novels. And like the Golden Age of the 30s in Great Britain, many of the writers of this new great Australian flowering are women. In recent months I’ve read and loved books by Jane Harper, Dervla McTiernan, and Emma Viskic, and now I need to add debut author Sarah Bailey to the list. The Dark Lake really is bloody brilliant!

Set in a small rundown Australian town, the story centres on the murder of a beautiful young teacher, her body found floating in the lake strewn with red roses. Detective Sergeant Gemma Woodstock went to school with the dead woman, but she hides this fact from her boss and her partner as she is desperate to investigate the crime. Slowly Gemma’s obsession with her old school friend deepens, threatening to derail her life and destroy all that she holds dear.

This is the kind of book that – once started – you really can’t put down. As more and more secrets are revealed, and more and more of Gemma’s life exposed, the mystery of how Rosalind Ryan died becomes increasingly gripping. And the story has a very satisfactory ending, as all good crime novels must have. I can’t wait for Sarah Bailey’s next book now!


What's your favourite crime novel? Please leave a comment and let me know. 

BOOK REVIEW: Butterfly on A Pin by Alannah Hill

Friday, October 19, 2018

 

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

Unflinching, funny, shocking, inspiring and tender: this is a story like no other.

Alannah Hill, one of Australia’s most successful fashion designers, created an international fashion brand that defied trends with ornamental, sophisticated elegance, beads, bows and vintage florals. But growing up in a milk bar in Tasmania, Alannah’s childhood was one of hardship, fear and abuse. At an early age she ran away from home with eight suitcases of costumes and a fierce determination to succeed, haunted by her mother’s refrain of ‘You’ll never amount to anything, you can’t sew, nobody likes you and you’re going to end up in a shallow grave, dear!’

At the height of her success, Alannah walked the razor’s edge between two identities – the ‘good’ Alannah and the ‘mongrel bastard’ Alannah. Who was the real Alannah Hill? Reprieve came in the form of a baby boy and the realisation that becoming a mother not only changes your life, but completely refurbishes it, forever.

Yet 'having it all' turned out to be another illusion. In 2013 Alannah walked away from her eponymous brand, a departure that left her coming apart at the seams. She slowly came to understand the only way she could move forward was to go back. At the heart of it all was her mother, whose loveless marriage and disappointment in life had a powerful and long-lasting effect on her daughter. It was finally time to call a truce with the past.


My Thoughts:

I always loved Alannah Hill’s clothes. Gorgeous velvets, silks and lace, embroidered and embellished with flowers, put together with humour and whimsy and bravado. As a young journalist and writer, I could rarely afford these alluring, fantastical creations, but I used to rummage in the sales bins or buy second-hand, and throw them together with other op-shop finds and a pair of red dancing shoes.

I have a fine collection of vintage Alannah now, most of which I can’t fit into anymore. I’m hoping my daughter will inherit them and create her own unique look (probably with jeans and sneakers). I still like to hunt through the Alannah Hill sales rack for a pink silk cami, a red lace dress, or a flamboyant rose hairpin. A dash of Alannah can make any woman feel glamorous.

I met Alannah Hill a few times, when I worked in fashion magazines, and she was always funny, raucous, and dressed to the nines. She made every other woman look drab and dull. And then, about five years ago, Alannah walked away from the fashion industry, leaving her brand to be designed and managed by Factory X, the name behind such brands as Dangerfied, Gorman and Princess Highway. There were rumours of bitter infighting, but neither Alannah or Factory X has revealed what really went on behind the scenes.

When I saw Alannah had written a memoir and was a guest at the Sydney Writers Festival, I went along to hear her speak and then bought the book and asked her to sign it for me. Her story, Butterfly On A Pin: A Memoir of Love, Despair and Reinvention, tells the story of her poverty-stricken abusive childhood, her wild adolescence, her search for love and meaning, and the creation and loss of the iconic Alannah Hill brand. The writing is raw, honest, heartfelt, and poignant. I was deeply moved at times, discovering the hurt and heartbreak behind her manic energy and edgy flamboyance. It really is an astonishing story of survival and transformation, and makes my vintage fashion collection so much more meaningful to me now.

For another great memoir, check out Lab Girl by Hope Jahren.

Please leave a comment and let me know what you think.

BOOK REVIEW: The Peacock Summer by Hannah Richell

Wednesday, October 03, 2018

 

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

Set in a fading family estate nestled within the Chiltern Hills, this is the story of two summers, sixty years apart, woven together to reveal one dramatic family story.


My Thoughts:

I’ve been waiting for a new novel from Hannah Richell for a long time, having absolutely adored her two earlier novels, The Shadow Year and Secrets of the Tides. I got a real stomach flip of excitement when I saw this book with its gorgeous cover and intriguing title.

Like her earlier books, The Peacock Summer is a parallel narrative that moves between the stories of two women. It begins in Sydney in contemporary times, when Maggie learns of the illness of her beloved grandmother Lillian. Maggie goes back home to Cloudesley, her grandmother’s home in the Chiltern Hills, only to find the old manor house falling into ruin. Lillian is not strong, and there is no money left for the upkeep of the estate. To make matters worse, Maggie needs to face up to the consequences of actions in her past which have made her an outcast in the village.

Hannah Richell’s writing is swift and elegant and a pleasure to read, and she is masterful at lacing the narrative with atmosphere and suspense:

“She runs a hand over the huge, faded tapestry hanging across the wall – then turns to climb the curved staircase to her own room. Halfway up she stops and listens. There is no scrabble of dog paws on the tiled floor, no shuffle of newspaper pages from the library, no distant murmur from her grandmother’s radio. There is nothing; not even the glug of water moving through old pipes. This house, that has witnessed so much throughout the years – dinner parties and laughter, conversation and arguments, dancing and music – a house that had seen so much life, had so many people pass through its doors, stands utterly silent. It is unnerving to be its only occupant. What echoes would she hear – what stirrings from the past – if she only knew what to listen for?

Her eyes fall upon the grandfather clock in the hall and she turns and heads back down the stairs, blowing dust from the cabinet to wind it the way Lillian once showed her. She watches with a certain satisfaction as the pendulum begins to sway, a steady tick rising up out of the old clock like a resuscitated heart beating in a chest. One small thing corrected.
She doesn’t want to think yet of all the the wrongs she still needs to set right.”

The story then moves to her grandmother’s point-of-view. Lillian is in her mid-20s and married to the lord of the manor, a handsome powerful man named Charles Oberon. Yet she feels stifled and unhappy. One day her husband hires a talented young artist to paint the walls of a room in Cloudesley. His name is Jack, and he and Lillian fall in love. Yet it’s an impossible dream. Lillian is tapped by duty and obligation, and Charles is not a man to let go of what he holds.

Back and forth the two stories weave, touching lightly across the decades as Maggie begins to learn her grandmother’s long-held secrets as she struggles to save the house she loves. It’s a story of Maggie’s personal growth and change, as well as a story of mysteries and revelations, and I adored it just as much as I had hoped.

I was lucky enough to interview Hannah Richell back in 2012, you can read it here.

Please leave a comment and let me know what you think.


BOOK REVIEW: Resurrection Bay by Emma Viskic

Wednesday, September 19, 2018


The Blurb (From Goodreads):

Caleb Zelic, profoundly deaf since early childhood, has always lived on the outside - watching, picking up telltale signs people hide in a smile, a cough, a kiss. When a childhood friend is murdered, a sense of guilt and a determination to prove his own innocence sends Caleb on a hunt for the killer. But he can’t do it alone. Caleb and his troubled friend Frankie, an ex-cop, start with one clue: Scott, the last word the murder victim texted to Caleb. But Scott is always one step ahead.

This gripping, original and fast-paced crime thriller is set between a big city and a small coastal town, Resurrection Bay, where Caleb is forced to confront painful memories. Caleb is a memorable protagonist who refuses to let his deafness limit his opportunities, or his participation in the investigation. But does his persistence border on stubbornness? And at what cost? As he delves deeper into the investigation Caleb uncovers unwelcome truths about his murdered friend – and himself.

My Thoughts:


Caleb Zelic has discovered his best friend lying in a pool of blood, his throat cut. Gary was a policeman with a young family. Caleb is a private investigator who had asked for his help on a case. Caleb is also profoundly deaf.

This is a high-octane thriller, thrumming with pace and tension. The style is curt and intense: ‘It had been an hour before he’d read the message, another two in the car, stuck behind every double-B and ageing Volvo. He should have run the red lights. Broken the speed limits. The law of physics.’

Characters are drawn in swift, deft strokes. ‘Tedesco was watching him: a face hewn from stone, with all the warmth to match.’ ‘Frankie … was wearing her usual jeans and battered leather jacket; her short, grey hair purple-tipped and scarecrow-wild.’

Yet there is poetry in the writing too. Caleb’s deafness makes his voice arresting and unpredictable. The word ‘executed’ is described as ‘a happy-looking word: a little smile for the first syllable, a soft pucker for the third.’ Scott is ‘a soft name, just sibilance and air.’ I loved the freshness of this voice for a hard-boiled detective; it’s bold and confident writing. I also loved the vulnerability of a man in search of a murderer who cannot hear his enemy coming.

Caleb has a love interest – his ex-wife, Kat, a blue-eyed Koori who draws and sculpts. She became one of my favourite characters, being feisty and yet kind and loving. The tension between Caleb and Kat added another element to the story, and helped the story hurtle on towards its surprising ending.

Resurrection Bay is razor-sharp contemporary crime, ramped up with witty dialogue, wry humour, and a dark, deftly handled plot that had the pages whizzing past.

You can read my recent interview with Emma Viskic here, and my review of And Fire Came Down here.

Please leave a comment and share your thoughts!

BOOK REVIEW: The Silent Invasion by James Bradley

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

 

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

It's a decade from now and the human race is dying. Plants, animals and humans have been infected by spores from space and become part of a vast alien intelligence.

When 16-year-old Callie discovers her little sister Gracie has been infected, she flees with Gracie to the Zone to avoid termination by the ruthless officers of Quarantine. What Callie finds in the Zone will alter her irrevocably, and send her on a journey to the stars and beyond.


My Thoughts:

James Bradley is one of the most thoughtful, bold and unpredictable writers working in Australia right now. I loved his novel Wrack, about an archaeologist who is searching for the 400-year-old wreck of a Portuguese ship off the coast of New South Wales, but finds the body of a murdered man instead. It’s not a crime novel, though it has a mystery at its heart. It’s not a romance though it’s about love. It’s a difficult, genre-transcending book about cruelty and loss and longing. His novel The Resurrectionist was a dark and surprising exploration of grave robbers in Victorian England. His novella, Beauty's Sister, is the story of Rapunzel told from the point of her darker, wilder sister Juniper. It’s powerful, unexpected and rather sinister. Then there’s Clade (which I’ve not read yet) but which is described as a near-future novel about the effects of climate change which disrupts expected narrative structures.

The key words here are surprising, genre-transcending, unexpected, disruptive.

I really love boldness and unpredictability in a writer, because it’s a quality that requires nerves of steel and a strong sense of one’s creative vision. So many writers find themselves scurrying in a mouse-wheel of market expectations, churning out one similar book after another, second-guessing what readers want, caught up in competing for the ephemera of prizes, grants, bestseller lists, review inches. To write what inspires and excites you, to test boundaries and expectations, to stretch your creative muscles to straining point and beyond – that takes courage, and James Bradley has it in spades.

He is also a beautiful writer, elegant and restrained.

So I was drawn to reading James Bradley’s new dystopian novel for young adults, The Silent Invasion, not because I like YA dystopia (I don’t really), but because I admire his writing and I was interested to see what he’d do with the conventions of this rather over-crowded genre.

The story is told from the point-of-view of sixteen-year-old Callie. She lives in the near-future, at a time when the world has become infected with the spores of some kind of alien intelligence. The first signs are phosphorus on the skin, a strange glow in the eyes. Anyone showing signs of being infected is taken away by Quarantine officers. No-one knows where, or what happens to them. Callie’s own father – a scientist studying the spores – was taken away, and now Callie is being looked after by her step-mother and her boyfriend. She loves her little sister Gracie deeply, and when it becomes clear Gracie has been infected, Callie does her best to save her.

It’s a race against time. Callie is chasing rumours and speculations that there is a safe place, a Zone, where Gracie will be safe. They meet a boy, also running, and a clever and relentless Quarantine officer determined to stop them, and various people, some kind, some unspeakably cruel. It’s intense, fast-paced, politically aware, and heart-breaking. Callie is tough and yet vulnerable, intelligent and yet prone to impulse, loving but still afraid to surrender herself to love. And the writing is as beautiful and thoughtful as I hoped for. So many writers for teenagers sacrifice lyricism for pace. They are not mutually exclusive. In fact, a perfectly turned sentence has its own unstoppable force:

‘Sometime deep in the night the moon rose, and for a time I lay staring up at it and the great girdle of the Milky Way. Its brightness stretched from horizon to horizon, and I imagined myself falling upwards, leaving all of this behind and losing myself in its light. Once we had dreamed of travelling to the stars, of becoming explorers; now we scrabbled and fought to survive. What else lay out there, I found myself wondering. Were there other worlds, other possibilities? Or was this all there was, this chaos and fear and sense we were running from something we could not outrun? At some point I realised I was crying; surprised at myself, I tried to wipe my face, but the tears kept coming.’

The Silent Invasion reminded me of some of the great science fiction books of my own adolescence. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle and The Giver by Lois Lowry. I hope it strikes as strong a chord.

James Bradley's earlier book, Beauty's Sister, appears on my best books of 2013 list. You can read it here.

BOOK REVIEW: Teacher by Gabbie Stroud

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

 

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

In 2014, Gabrielle Stroud was a very dedicated teacher with over a decade of experience. Months later, she resigned in frustration and despair when she realised that the Naplan-test education model was stopping her from doing the very thing she was best at: teaching individual children according to their needs and talents. Her ground-breaking essay 'Teaching Australia' in the Feb 2016 Griffith Review outlined her experiences and provoked a huge response from former and current teachers around the world. That essay lifted the lid on a scandal that is yet to properly break - that our education system is unfair to our children and destroying their teachers.

In a powerful memoir inspired by her original essay, Gabrielle tells the full story: how she came to teaching, what makes a great teacher, what our kids need from their teachers, and what it was that finally broke her. A brilliant and heart-breaking memoir that cuts to the heart of a vital matter of national importance.


My Thoughts:


I first met Gabbie Stroud when we were on tour together with the Byron Writers Festival. She had written a personal essay for Griffith Review about her decision to quit teaching, which had always been her life vocation. Her essay stirred up a lot of controversy, as more and more teachers began to criticise Australia’s education system. Allen & Unwin asked her if she’d be interested in extending her essay into a book-length memoir, and Teacher is the poignant and powerful result.

All Gabbie Stroud ever wanted to do was teach our children, and inspire them with her own big-hearted warmth, generosity and love of learning.

Instead she found herself broken by a system that cares more for data and demographies than young minds and spirits.

Interweaving her own personal journey towards being a teacher with anecdotes from the classroom, Teacher illuminates the enormous difficulties our teachers face today. Sometimes their students are hungry, bruised, or afraid. Sometimes they are sick, angry, or struggling. Their teacher needs to keep them and their classmates safe and calm, while still trying to instil learning. Teachers are burdened by administrative tasks, curriculum demands, difficult parents, and large numbers of students. They end up exhausted, overwhelmed, and stressed, and often completely burned-out.

Gabbie Stroud shines a penetrating light on all that is wrong with the Australian education system and how it fails both our children and our teachers. Impossible to read without choking up, this is an eloquent rallying cry for change and should be mandatory reading for all politicians and policy-makers. Luminous and heart-rending.

I was lucky enough to interview Gabbie Stroud for the blog this week, you can read it here.


Please leave a comment!


BOOK REVIEW: The Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone by Jaclyn Moriarty

Friday, August 17, 2018

 

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

Bronte Mettlestone's parents ran away to have adventures when she was a baby, leaving her to be raised by her Aunt Isabelle and the Butler. She's had a perfectly pleasant childhood of afternoon teas and riding lessons - and no adventures, thank you very much.

But Bronte's parents have left extremely detailed (and bossy) instructions for Bronte in their will. The instructions must be followed to the letter, or disaster will befall Bronte's home. She is to travel the kingdoms and empires, perfectly alone, delivering special gifts to her ten other aunts. There is a farmer aunt who owns an orange orchard and a veterinarian aunt who specialises in dragon care, a pair of aunts who captain a cruise ship together and a former rockstar aunt who is now the reigning monarch of a small kingdom.

Now, armed with only her parents' instructions, a chest full of strange gifts and her own strong will, Bronte must journey forth to face dragons, Chief Detectives and pirates - and the gathering suspicion that there might be something more to her extremely inconvenient quest than meets the eye...

From the award-winning Jaclyn Moriarty comes a fantastic tale of high intrigue, grand adventure and an abundance of aunts.


My Thoughts:

I have always thought that Jaclyn Moriarty has one of the freshest and most original voices in Australian children’s literature and so was eager to read her latest children’s fantasy, beautifully presented as a hardback with whimsical illustrations by Kelly Canby. The book did not disappoint – it was a sparkling delight from beginning to end, with lots of unexpected discoveries, wondrous encounters and madcap adventures.

The story begins:

I was ten years old when my parents were killed by pirates. This did not bother me as much as you might think - I hardly knew my parents.

Bronte’s parents had run away to have adventures when she was just a baby, leaving her to be raised by her Aunt Isabelle and the Butler. But their last will and testament says she must set out alone, on a solitary quest, to take a farewell gift to each of her ten other aunts. Her parents’ will has been bordered by fairy cross-stitch, which means calamity will befall her home town if she disobeys. So Bronte sets out to fulfil her parents’ dying wish (although, really, it is extremely inconvenient). Before long she is grappling with dragons, Chief Detectives, spell whisperers and pirates. Luckily, Bronte is very resourceful and determined as well as kind-hearted and clever, and so she deals with one troublesome aunt after another with aplomb.

The world-building in this book is so rich and inventive it could easily support a dozen other books, and so I hope that The Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone is the first in what will be a long series. This is the perfect book for a sensitive imaginative bookworm who is not yet ready for Harry Potter but wants a story filled with magic, adventure, humour and whimsy (the kind of kid I was when I was eleven!)

I was lucky enough to interview Jaclyn for the blog this weeks, you can read it here.

If you like the sound of this book, you might also be interested in my review of Nevermoor.

Please leave a comment and let me know what you think.


BOOK REVIEW: The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

 

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

Before she was a trauma cleaner, Sandra Pankhurst was many things: husband and father, drag queen, gender reassignment patient, sex worker, small businesswoman, trophy wife…

But as a little boy, raised in violence and excluded from the family home, she just wanted to belong. Now she believes her clients deserve no less.

A woman who sleeps among garbage she has not put out for forty years. A man who bled quietly to death in his loungeroom. A woman who lives with rats, random debris and terrified delusion. The still life of a home vacated by accidental overdose.

Sarah Krasnostein has watched the extraordinary Sandra Pankhurst bring order and care to these, the living and the dead—and the book she has written is equally extraordinary. Not just the compelling story of a fascinating life among lives of desperation, but an affirmation that, as isolated as we may feel, we are all in this together.


My Thoughts:

I had some time free at the Sydney Writers’ Festival and so slipped in to hear Sarah Krasnostein talk about her debut work of biography, The Trauma Cleaner. I had seen people talking about it and recommending it on social media, and I knew it had won the $100,000 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, but otherwise I knew very little about it.

Sarah Krasnostein spoke so intelligently about her transformative journey in writing this book that I bought it at once, and asked her to sign it.

Basically, Sarah was at an academic conference one day when she saw a tall blonde woman sitting at a table with an oxygen mask and a fanned-out pile of brochures about her company. ‘Specialised Trauma Cleaning Services’. Sarah was intrigued, picked up a copy and read it through several times.

“People do not understand about body fluids,” the brochure read. “Bodily fluids are like acids. They have all the same enzymes that break down our food. When these powerful enzymes come into contact with furnishing and the like, deterioration is rapid. I have known enzymes to soak through a sofa and to eat at the springs, mould growing throughout a piece of furniture and I have witnessed the rapid deterioration of a contaminated mattress.”

Wanting to know more, Sarah rang the tall blonde woman – whose name was Sandra Pankhurst – and asked if she could interview her.

I find this action of hers intriguing as well. Sarah Krasnostein was not a journalist or a writer by trade. She was a law lecturer and researcher with a doctorate in criminal law. What deep psychological need in Sarah drove her to want to meet a trauma cleaner, and then spend the next four years following her around?

Whatever her own motivations, Sarah Krasnostein has an infallible instinct for a good story. Sandra Pankhurst’s life was shocking, heartbreaking, and powerful. Born a boy, adopted at birth, abused and neglected, he became a husband and father, then a drag-queen and sex-worker, and then undertook gender reassignment surgery and became a woman. Totally reinventing herself, Sandra began to work at a funeral parlour and then married a man she met at his wife’s cremation. Energetic and ambitious, she runs a business with him and stands for local council. When the business fails, she begins a cleaning company to support them both, and soon realises that the real money is in trauma cleaning.

So what does a trauma cleaner do? Her business card says:

* Hoarding and Pet Hoarding Clean up * Squalor/ Trashed Properties * Preparing the Home, for Home Help Agencies to Attend * Odor Control * Homicide, Suicide and Death Scenes * Deceased Estates * Mold, Flood and Fire Remediation * Methamphetamine Lab Clean Up * Industrial Accidents * Cell Cleaning

For three and a half years, Sarah Krasnostein followed Sandra Pankhurst in and out of filthy, stinking houses and watched as she returned them to sparkling, sweet-smelling order. The first job Sarah attended was the apartment of a 35-year-old heroin junkie who had overdosed and her body had not been found for two weeks. Sarah was 35 at the time herself, a confronting parallel.

A chapter about one of Sandra’s clients is followed by a chapter about Sandra herself, the two timelines weaving in and out of each other until we reach the end of the tale.

Sandra is an unreliable narrator, and so not an easy subject for a biography:

‘Many of the facts of Sandra’s past are either entirely forgotten, endlessly interchangeable, neurotically ordered, conflicting or loosely tethered to reality. She is open about the fact that drugs may have impacted her memory … It is also my belief that her memory loss is trauma-induced,’ Sarah Krasnostein writes. So The Trauma Cleaner is also a meditation on memory and forgetting, trust and lies, and this philosophical element of the book adds an extra depth and interest.

Bu the real star of the book is Sandra Pankhurst herself – her warmth, humour, compassion and grit. This is truly an astonishing life story, discovered by accident and told with real grace and thoughtfulness.


I was lucky enough to interview Sarah Krasnostein for the blog this week, you can read it here.

Please leave a comment, I love to know what you think.



BOOK REVIEW: The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose

Friday, August 10, 2018

 

The Blurb (from Goodreads):

A mesmerising literary novel about a lost man in search of connection - a meditation on love, art and commitment, set against the backdrop of one of the greatest art events in modern history, Marina Abramovic's The Artist is Present.

Arky Levin is a film composer in New York separated from his wife, who has asked him to keep one devastating promise. One day he finds his way to The Atrium at MOMA and sees Marina Abramovic in The Artist is Present. The performance continues for seventy-five days and, as it unfolds, so does Arky. As he watches and meets other people drawn to the exhibit, he slowly starts to understand what might be missing in his life and what he must do.

This dazzlingly original novel asks beguiling questions about the nature of art, life and love and finds a way to answer them.


My Thoughts:

I love art in all its forms, and had heard so many wonderful reviews of The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose (which won the 2017 Stella Prize) that I had been wanting to read it for a long time.

However, I did not buy the book until after I interviewed Heather Rose for Word of Mouth TV earlier this year and was fascinated by the story of the book’s inspiration and long genesis.

The story is centred on the true-life art performance ‘The Artist is Present’, in which Serbian-born artist Marina Abramovic sits silently on a chair at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York for seventy-five days, without speaking or moving or showing any outward sign that she is alive. People visiting the museum have the chance to sit with her and look into her eyes, but are not permitted to speak or act in any way.

This act of silent connection proves extraordinarily moving and inspiring for many thousands of people, who queue up day after day to watch and participate. In all, 1,500 people would sit with Marina Abramovic and more than 850,000 people watched, some returning day after day after day (including Heather Rose who sat with the artist four times).

In the world of Heather Rose’s extraordinary, luminous novel, we met several imaginary people who are also drawn to watch. Among them are Arky Levin, a film composer separated from his wife, and Jane Miller, a widow who had once been a teacher. Both are struggling with loss and grief; both are drawn to Marina Abramovic’s installation for reasons they do not fully understand. They meet when Jane, annoyed by a stranger’s patronising remarks about modern art, turns to Arky and says, ‘I think art saves people all the time.’

I think art saves people too. I think it has saved me more than once. And so this is a book that resonated with me on so many levels.

Arky and Jane do not fall in love. Their lives touch only briefly, yet both are changed by their encounter, with each other and with ‘The Artist is Present’ installation. So too are the lives of others in the crowd, some of whome we meet only briefly. Without moving, without speaking, Marina Abramovic is an agent of revelation and transformation.

‘It is her metier to dance on the edge of madness, to vault over pain into the solace of disintegration,’ Heather Rose writes of her.

Other voices who speak in this beautiful and beguiling novel are the ghost of Marina Abramovic’s mother, a fierce and unrelenting woman who had been a Serbian war hero, and an unnamed narrator who acts as a muse to Arky and other struggling artists.

‘Pain is the stone that art sharpens itself on time after time,’ the muse says at one point.

These elements of magical realism are interwoven so delicately and surely that they do not disrupt the narrative flow at all, but add intensity and pathos as well as a sense of wonder and amazement at the extraordinary way art and creativity can shape and succour the human psyche.

After I finished The Museum of Modern Art, I too was fascinated by Marina Abramovic and read or watched numerous articles and documentaries about her. I love a book that drives me to learn more.

It took Heather rose more than eleven years to craft this exquisitely written novel, a testament to the depth of her obsession and the dediction to her craft. It is definitely one of the best books I’ve read this year. Quite possibly, one of the best book I’ve read ever.

If you like books about art, check out my review of The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith.

I was lucky enough to interview Heather Rose for the blog this week, you can read it here.

Please leave a comment and let me know what you think.


BOOK REVIEW: The Whole Bright Year by Debra Oswald

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

 

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

In the summer of 1976 it's picking season on an Australian stone-fruit orchard run by Celia, a hard-working woman in her early forties. Years ago, when her husband was killed as a bystander in an armed robbery, Celia left the city and brought her newborn daughter Zoe to this farm for a secure life. Now sixteen, Zoe is a passionate, intelligent girl, chafing against her mother's protectiveness, yearning to find intensity and a bit of danger.

Barging into this world as itinerant fruit-pickers come a desperate brother and sister from Sydney. The hard-bitten Sheena has kidnapped her wild, ebullient eighteen-year-old brother Kieran and dragged him out west, away from trouble in the city. Kieran and Zoe are drawn to each other the instant they meet, sparking excitement, worry, lust, trouble . . .

How do we protect people we love? How do we bear watching them go out into the perilous world with no guarantee of safety or happiness? What bargains do people make with darkness in order to survive? From the creator of Offspring and author of Useful, The Whole Bright Year is a gripping, wry and tender novel about how holding on too tightly can cost us what we love.


My Thoughts:

The gorgeous title and cover of this novel are instantly enticing … and then I open the book and find a quote from Homer referencing my favourite Greek myth, the story of Demeter, the goddess of the harvest, whose daughter Persephone is ravished away by Hades, the god of the underworld. At once I wonder if Debra Oswald plans to allude to the myth in a book that I know (thanks to the blurb) is set in Australia in 1976. I love books that drawn on myth and folklore in bold and unexpected ways, and so I settle in to read with a heightened sense of anticipation and interest.

I was ten in 1976 (hard to believe, I hope!), and so the setting immediately evokes for me the long hot summers of my childhood – paddle-pops, and vinyl seats that burn your bare thighs, and pop music blaring from the radio. Malcolm Fraser was Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam is still licking his wounds from the Dismissal, and ABBA was ruling the pop charts with ‘Dancing Queen’ and ‘Money Money Money’. Such an interesting time to set a novel! The 1970s are not distant enough to be considered historical fiction (the Historical Novel Society defines the genre as books written at least fifty years after the events described) and yet the immense changes to technology and society in the last forty-two years make 1976 seem a very different time. This slippage between historical and contemporary fiction makes for a really interesting dynamic. There are no mobile phones and an answering machine is new and baffling technology, for instance, which makes it so much easier for a teenage girl to disappear without trace.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

Celia is a single mother raising her daughter Zoe alone (Celia means ‘heavenly’ and Zoe means ‘life’, a subtle hint to the metafictive role played by these characters). Celia’s husband was murdered in front of her when she was pregnant, and so she has retreated to a peach farm where she works hard and tries not to worry too much about Zoe – curious and radiant – growing up so fast.

In the summer of 1976, Zoe is sixteen. It’s picking season time, which means it’s scorching hot and the peaches are ripe for the plucking (metaphor intended). Trouble with her usual pickers means that Celia needs help, and so she hires two tattooed and pierced runaways from the city to help her bring in the fruit before it spoils. There is Sheena, edgy and foul-mouthed, and her eighteen-year-old brother Kieran, brimming over with life and energy. It is inevitable that Zoe and Kieran are drawn to each other, despite Celia’s worry and warnings. And, given Celia’s tragic past, it is inevitable that she tries to drive a wedge between the two young lovers. What she does not expect is for Zoe to disappear. And so begins the mother’s desperate search for her daughter.

When Persephone vanishes, literally from the face of the earth, Demeter was so overwhelmed with grief and fear that leaves began to shrivel and fall, and frost touched the world for the first time. It is the story of the first winter. And when Persephone is found, imprisoned in Hades’ underworld, her mother’s joy means that life is restored to the frozen world and spring blooms.

Celia’s search for her daughter, in all the dark places of Sydney’s underbelly, is analogous to this search by the goddess of the harvest. It is every mother’s nightmare, and certainly one I share. I could identify with both Zoe – rebellious, intelligent, and wanting to experience as much of life as possible – and her mother Celia, hurt by life, all too aware of its dangers, wanting only to protect her daughter but inadvertently driving her away.

I don’t want to say much more, because the plot of The Whole Bright Year is driven by a sense of ever-tightening suspense. It begins slowly, languorously, with gorgeous descriptions of peaches and summer and young love, but almost imperceptibly the screw of dramatic tension is tightened until I couldn’t bear to put the book down. And, by the end, I was all choked up. A really powerful book, written with warmth, tenderness and humour that will stay in my memory a long time.


You might also be interested in my review of Sixty Seconds by Jesse Blackadder.

Please leave a comment and let me know what you think.



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