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BOOK REVIEW: The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

BLURB:

In the latest masterpiece by Emma Donoghue, bestselling author of Room, an English nurse brought to a small Irish village to observe what appears to be a miracle-a girl said to have survived without food for months-soon finds herself fighting to save the child's life.

Tourists flock to the cabin of eleven-year-old Anna O'Donnell, who believes herself to be living off manna from heaven, and a journalist is sent to cover the sensation. Lib Wright, a veteran of Florence Nightingale's Crimean campaign, is hired to keep watch over the girl.

Written with all the propulsive tension that made Room a huge bestseller, THE WONDER works beautifully on many levels--a tale of two strangers who transform each other's lives, a powerful psychological thriller, and a story of love pitted against evil.


MY THOUGHTS:

I have read Emma Donogue’s brilliant collection of fairy-tale retellings Kissing the Witch: Old Tales in New Skins but have not yet read any of her novels. I have heard such high praise of her writing, however, and I was so interested in the premise of her new novel, The Wonder, that I bought it as soon as it hit the bookshops.

The story begins with an English nurse, who had trained with Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War, arriving in a tiny Irish village to watch over a little girl whose family claims can survive without food. She lives on ‘manna from heaven’, and so is thought of as a kind of miracle. People come to her to be blessed, and leave the family gifts in return. The nurse, Mrs Wright, thinks it is all a sham, and determines to reveal the truth. However, slowly, all her preconceptions and prejudices are turned upside-down, and she discovers a very different truth to what she had expected.

I first read about cases like this in Joan Jacobs Brumberg’s brilliant history of Anorexia Nervosa, Fasting Girls. She shows how food-refusal by girls and young women stretches all the way back to medieval times, when saints and martyrs refused food or purged themselves of food as a sign of their religious devotion. In the nineteenth century, there were many cases of so-called ‘fasting girls’ including the famous case of Sarah Jacob, the ‘Welsh Fasting Girl’ who eventually died of starvation at the age of twelve after a watch was set over her by the local doctor. 

The Wonder is inspired by such real-life stories but, in the true art of fiction, transforms it into something much greater. The Wonder is a story about faith, about love, about secrets, and about the mysterious ways in which human lives intersect and impact on each other. I loved it.

BOOK REVIEW: The Silvered Heart by Katherine Clements

Monday, March 27, 2017



BLURB:


1648: Civil war is devastating England. The privileged world Katherine Ferrars knows is crumbling under Cromwell's army, and as an orphaned heiress, she has no choice but to do her duty and marry for the sake of family.


But as her marriage turns into a prison, and her fortune is decimated by the war, Kate becomes increasingly desperate. So when she meets the enigmatic Ralph Chaplin, she seizes the chance he offers. Their plan is daring and brutal, but it's an escape from poverty and the shackles of convention. They both know if they're caught, there's only one way it can end..


MY THOUGHTS:


I absolutely loved Katherine Clements’s debut novel The Crimson Ribbon which was inspired by the true-life story of Elizabeth Poole, a mystic and writer during the English Civil War who became famous for her boldness and vision (she told Oliver Cromwell not to execute the king, for example).


It was one of my Best Books of 2013, and so I was excited to hear Katherine Clements had published a new book, also set during the English Civil War.


The Silvered Heart tells the story of Lady Katherine Ferrars, an impoverished noblewoman-turned-highwaywoman. The book begins when she is only thirteen, and is travelling to her wedding with the son of another aristocratic family. The Cavaliers and the Roundheads are at war, though, and so the roads are dangerous. Her carriage is held up by highwaymen, and young Kate barely escapes with her life. The events of that day foreshadow what will happen to her later, as she struggles to survive the imploding of her world. 


I have always loved books set during the English Civil War and never understood why it has not become as popular a period as Tudor or Elizabethan times. It has everything. Bloody battles, betrayals, executions, kings-in-hiding, star-crossed lovers, spies, witch-hunts, highwaymen and, of course, the legend of the Wicked Lady - a woman who tried to shape her own fate by taking to the roads. The character of Lady Katherine Ferrars is fascinating. She’s headstrong, impetuous, romantic and, at times, both selfish and unkind. This makes her seem so real – she just gallops off the page. 


The Silvered Heart is an exciting and engaging mix of drama, romance, and history – I really loved it and hope Katherine Clements is writing another book. 

BOOK REVIEW: The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

Wednesday, March 22, 2017



BLURB:


In a dusty post-war summer in rural Warwickshire, a doctor is called to a patient at Hundreds Hall. Home to the Ayres family for over two centuries, the Georgian house, once grand and handsome, is now in decline, its masonry crumbling, its gardens choked with weeds, the clock in its stable yard permanently fixed at twenty to nine. Its owners – mother, son and daughter – are struggling to keep pace with a changing society, as well as with conflicts of their own.


But are the Ayreses haunted by something more sinister than a dying way of life? Little does Dr Faraday know how closely, and how terrifyingly, their story is about to become entwined with his. 


MY THOUGHTS:


I have been steadily reading my way through Sarah Waters’s backlist after discovering her a year or so ago with the brilliant, unputdownable Affinity. She’s one of those writers that always makes me sigh and wish that I could write as well. 


The three books of hers that I have read to date are all set during the Victorian era. The Little Stranger, however, is set in the difficult years after World War II, when the known world has been shaken loose from its moorings. Its topography is familiar to me from dozens of books by Agatha Christie, Daphne du Maurier, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy L. Sayers and Patricia Wentworth. Even though The Little Stranger is not a who-dunnit by any means, it shares a great deal with books by these classic crime writers – a grand English country house, class snobbery, mysteries and misdirection, unexpected twists, and a series of unexplained deaths and tragedies.


The Little Stranger also differs from Sarah Water’s earlier books by having a male narrator. Dr Faraday is the local doctor who finds himself drawn deeper and deeper into affairs at Hundreds House. It soon becomes clear that he is a not-entirely-reliable narrator, which really heightens the tension and suspense, and reminded me of Agatha Christie’s great masterpiece Who Killed Roger Ackroyd? It also reminded me of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca in the way the slowly building suspense becomes almost unbearable.


Yet The Little Stranger is at heart a creepy Gothic ghost story, with a malevolent poltergeist driving the inhabitants towards the house towards the book’s grand tragic finale. 


Or is it? 


Is the ghost real? Is it a strange kind of madness? A manifestation of intense psychic distress? Or is it a kind of malicious manipulation by someone in the house? Perhaps even the doctor himself?


This mystery and ambiguity is part of the genius of The Little Stranger. Since I finished reading it, I’ve discussed it with dozens of people who all believe something different. I think it is just brilliant. 


BOOK REVIEW: The Dry by Jane Harper

Saturday, March 11, 2017


BLURB:

Luke Hadler turns a gun on his wife and child, then himself. The farming community of Kiewarra is facing life and death choices daily. If one of their own broke under the strain, well...

When Federal Police investigator Aaron Falk returns to Kiewarra for the funerals, he is loath to confront the people who rejected him twenty years earlier. But when his investigative skills are called on, the facts of the Hadler case start to make him doubt this murder-suicide charge.

And as Falk probes deeper into the killings, old wounds start bleeding into fresh ones. For Falk and his childhood friend Luke shared a secret... A secret Falk thought long-buried... A secret which Luke's death starts to bring to the surface...


MY THOUGHTS:

Set in a small Australian country town, The Dry is a tense, compelling and atmospheric murder mystery, as well as an astonishingly assured debut from English-born novelist Jane Harper. It won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript in 2015, and has since been sold in more than 20 territories and – wait for it – has been optioned for a film by Reese Witherspoon and Bruna Papandrea's production company, Pacific Standard. It deserves all its acclaim. The story itself is brilliant: Federal Police investigator Aaron Falk returns to his home town to attend the funeral of his childhood best friend. The town is in shock. Luke Hadler killed his wife and son, and then turned the gun on himself. Or so it is believed. Aaron begins to have doubts. But his investigation is hampered by the skeletons of his own past – and the people of that small outback town have long memories …

World-class crime writing with an evocative and powerful Australian setting puts this novel in a class of its own. Read it. 

BOOK REVIEW: Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekback

Friday, February 17, 2017

BLURB:

Swedish Lapland, 1717. Maija, her husband Paavo and her daughters Frederika and Dorotea arrive from their native Finland, hoping to forget the traumas of their past and put down new roots in this harsh but beautiful land. Above them looms Blackåsen, a mountain whose foreboding presence looms over the valley and whose dark history seems to haunt the lives of those who live in its shadow.

While herding the family’s goats on the mountain, Frederika happens upon the mutilated body of one of their neighbors, Eriksson. The death is dismissed as a wolf attack, but Maija feels certain that the wounds could only have been inflicted by another man. 

Compelled to investigate despite her neighbors’ strange disinterest in the death and the fate of Eriksson’s widow, Maija is drawn into the dark history of tragedies and betrayals that have taken place on Blackåsen. Young Frederika finds herself pulled towards the mountain as well, feeling something none of the adults around her seem to notice.

As the seasons change, and the “wolf winter,” the harshest winter in memory, descends upon the settlers, Paavo travels to find work, and Maija finds herself struggling for her family’s survival in this land of winter-long darkness. As the snow gathers, the settlers’ secrets are increasingly laid bare. Scarce resources and the never-ending darkness force them to come together, but Maija, not knowing who to trust and who may betray her, is determined to find the answers for herself. 

Soon, Maija discovers the true cost of survival under the mountain, and what it will take to make it to spring.

MY THOUGHTS:

Atmospheric, compelling and full of foreboding, Wolf Winter was one of my best discoveries this year. It is set in Swedish Lapland in 1717, and begins with the discovery of a dead man’s body in the mountains by two little girls. The girls’ mother, Maija, finds herself unable to let the murder rest. It must be someone she knows, she reasons, and yet … who? 

Filled with superstitions and the fear of witchcraft, the local people all have secrets to hide. And so does Maija. The result is something so eerie, so chilling, so powerful, I could not put the book down. It reminded me of Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites and Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child, two of my favourite books, in the sheer desolation of the landscape and the sense of a dark threat that hangs over the characters. Brilliant.


BOOK REVIEW: The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins by Antonia Hodgson

Thursday, February 16, 2017



MY BLURB:


London, 1728. Tom Hawkins is headed to the gallows, accused of murder. Gentlemen don’t hang and Tom’s damned if he’ll be the first. He may not be much of a gentleman, but he is innocent. He just always finds his way into a spot of bad luck.  


It’s hard to say when Tom’s troubles began. He was happily living in sin with his beloved, Kitty Sparks — though their neighbors were certainly less pleased about that.  He probably shouldn't have told London’s most cunning criminal mastermind that he was "bored and looking for adventure." Nor should he have offered to help the king's mistress in her desperate struggles with a brutal and vindictive husband. And he definitely shouldn't have trusted the calculating Queen Caroline. She’s promised him a royal pardon if he holds his tongue, but then again, there is nothing more silent than a hanged man.     


Now Tom must scramble to save his life and protect those he loves. But as the noose tightens, his time is running out.


MY THOUGHTS:


The Confession of Thomas Hawkins is the sequel to The Devil in the Marchelsea, which I read and loved last year. Thomas Hawkins is a brilliant creation – flawed and yet so likeable. 


The son of a parson, he spends his day drinking and gambling and falling into trouble, with the help of his sharp-tongued, strong-willed lover, Kitty Sparks, who refuses to marry him because women lose all power once the wedding ring is on their finger. 


Set in 1728, the book is rich in sensual historical detail and yet the pace is unflagging. Thomas is in a race against time to solve a gruesome murder and outwit a sadistic aristocrat before the hangman’s noose is put about his neck. A truly fabulous historical romp.


BOOK REVIEW: Where the Trees Were by Inga Simpson

Thursday, February 16, 2017

BLURB:

'All in?' Kieran pulled me up, and the others followed. We gathered around the bigger tree. No one asked Matty - he just reached up and put his right hand on the trunk with ours.

Kieran cleared his throat. 'We swear, on these trees, to always be friends. To protect each other - and this place.'

Finding those carved trees forged a bond between Jay and her four childhood friends and opened their eyes to a wider world. But their attempt to protect the grove ends in disaster, and that one day on the river changes their lives forever.

Seventeen years later, Jay finally has her chance to make amends. But at what cost? Not every wrong can be put right, but sometimes looking the other way is no longer an option.

MY THOUGHTS:

A beautiful meditation on the Australian landscape and the Aboriginal connection to it, Where the Trees Were is a must-read for anyone who has ever swung on a tyre over a slow-moving brown river or lain on the ground looking up at a scorching blue sky through the shifting leaves of a gum tree. 

Told in Inga Simpson’s deceptively simple style, the novel moves back and forth between the adulthood and childhood of a Canberra art curator called Jay. In the past lie tragedies and misunderstandings that shaped Jay’s psyche and still have ramifications on her life today. Jay is searching for a way to make amends for what happened, but her quest may cost her everything she most cares about. 


BOOK REVIEW: Den of Wolves by Juliet Marillier

Wednesday, February 15, 2017



BLURB:


Healer Blackthorn knows all too well the rules of her bond to the fey: seek no vengeance, help any who ask, do only good. But after the recent ordeal she and her companion, Grim, have suffered, she knows she cannot let go of her quest to bring justice to the man who ruined her life.


Despite her personal struggles, Blackthorn agrees to help the princess of Dalriada in taking care of a troubled young girl who has recently been brought to court, while Grim is sent to the girl’s home at Wolf Glen to aid her wealthy father with a strange task—repairing a broken-down house deep in the woods. It doesn’t take Grim long to realize that everything in Wolf Glen is not as it seems—the place is full of perilous secrets and deadly lies...


Back at Winterfalls, the evil touch of Blackthorn’s sworn enemy reopens old wounds and fuels her long-simmering passion for justice. With danger on two fronts, Blackthorn and Grim are faced with a heartbreaking choice—to stand once again by each other’s side or to fight their battles alone..


MY THOUGHTS:


The final book in Juliet Marillier’s latest magical historical trilogy, Den of Wolves wraps up the story of Blackthorn and Grim beautifully. It draws together the familiar narrative strands of Blackthorn’s quest for justice and her fear of drawing too close to anyone with the situation of a young woman who does not seem to fit into her world. Blackthorn is a wise woman who has suffered terribly in the past, and Grim is her huge but gentle sidekick who worships the ground she walks on. Their story began with Dreamer’s Pool and Tower of Thorns, which you must read first, and, as always with Juliet Marillier, is a wonderful mix of history, romance, and fairy-tale-like enchantment. I’ve really loved this series, and am sad that there will not be any more stories about the damaged healer and her taciturn giant of a companion. I’m only comforted by the knowledge that Juliet Marillier is working on a new project. I can only hope we are not kept waiting too long!



BOOK REVIEW: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

Tuesday, February 14, 2017


BLURB:


The year is 1969. In the state of Kerala, on the southernmost tip of India, fraternal twins Esthappen and Rahel fashion a childhood for themselves in the shade of the wreck that is their family. Their lonely, lovely mother, Ammu, (who loves by night the man her children love by day), fled an abusive marriage to live with their blind grandmother, Mammachi (who plays Handel on her violin), their beloved uncle Chacko (Rhodes scholar, pickle baron, radical Marxist, bottom-pincher), and their enemy, Baby Kochamma (ex-nun and incumbent grandaunt). When Chacko's English ex-wife brings their daughter for a Christmas visit, the twins learn that things can change in a day, that lives can twist into new, ugly shapes, even cease forever, beside their river...


MY THOUGHTS:


Arundhati Roy burst onto the literary scene with this Booker-Prize-winning novel in 1997, which became the biggest-selling book ever written by an Indian author still living in India. She received half a million pounds as an advance, and the book was sold into eighteen different countries within two months. It’s the kind of dream run every writer longs for, yet Arundhati Roy has never published another novel. 


Perhaps this novel was so deeply felt and personal to her that it was the one book of her soul, never to be repeated.


I bought it in 1997, and tried to read it then. I disliked it emphatically. I found it faux-naïf: awkward, self-conscious, disjointed. There were so many characters – ten introduced in less than five pages! And the narrative structure was kaleidoscopic, making it difficult to connect to either the characters or their story. I put it away, thinking I’d try it another time (this is my rule with books I don’t like.) So it sat on my to-be-read-one-day bookshelf for twenty years. I pulled it out a dozen times, hesitated over it, then put it back. I almost gave it to charity once. But something made me keep it.


Then, one day, determined to read some of those books I’d bought but never read, I took it down again. This time I read it swiftly and eagerly. I found the jumps about in time and point-of-view fresh and exhilarating. Her boldness and originality struck me forcibly. No-one has ever written like this before, I kept thinking. The naivety and awkwardness now seemed a perfect choice for a story told from a child’s point-of-view.


It is not an easy book to read, both because of its subject matter – the tragic consequences of violence and cruelty and small-mindedness – and because of its repetitive and disjointed narrative structure. And I felt as if Arundhati Roy set out deliberately to shock and provoke, breaking as many taboos as she could, from the Indian caste system to incest. I have read that the book was inspired by true events in Arundhati Roy’s life. I can only hope it was the setting and not the events of her life. 


The God of Small Things is undeniably brilliant, innovative, and thought-provoking. I was moved and troubled by it, and found tears in my eyes at the end. And I can only applaud her virtuosity and boldness with language. A truly astonishing book.  




BOOK REVIEW: The Ties That Bind by Lexi Landsman

Monday, February 13, 2017

BLURB:

On opposite sides of the world, two lives are changed forever. One by the smallest bruise. The other by a devastating bushfire. And both by a shocking secret . . .

Miami art curator Courtney Hamilton and her husband David live the perfect life until their ten-year-old son Matthew is diagnosed with leukaemia. He needs a bone-marrow transplant but, with Courtney being adopted, the chances of finding a match within his family are slim. 

Desperate to find a donor, Courtney tracks the scattered details of her birth 15,000 kilometres away, to the remote town of Somerset in the Victorian bush. 

Meanwhile Jade Taylor wakes up in hospital in Somerset having survived the deadly bushfire that destroyed the family home and their beloved olive groves. Gone too are the landmarks that remind her of her mother, Asha, a woman whose repeated absences scarred her childhood.

As Jade rallies her fractured family to rebuild their lives, Courtney arrives in the burnt countryside to search for her lost parents - but discovers far more . . . 

MY THOUGHTS:

I met Lexi Landsman at the Melbourne Jewish Writers Festival, and bought her book there (I always come home from a festival with a suitcase laden with books!) The Ties That Bind Us is her first novel, but I can guarantee it won’t be her last. From the heart-rending opening scene, when a child is stolen from her pram, to the emotional lump-in-the-throat ending, the story unspools swiftly and surely, the pages seemingly turning themselves. 

It’s the story of a young mother, Courtney, who discovers that her ten-year-old desperately son needs a bone marrow transplant. His best chance of surviving is to find a familial match – but Courtenay is adopted and knows nothing about her birth family. She sets out on a quest to discover her origins, and uncovers all sorts of dark secrets. A really engaging and heart-warming read.



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