Category: Fiction

Book Review: “The Lifeboat”, Charlotte Rogan

Its 1914 when we meet Grace, a survivor following the sinking of the ocean liner Empress Alexandra, and she is on trial for her life.  The novel is her diary of the events that happened during the three weeks that Lifeboat 14 was adrift somewhere in the Atlantic ocean with 39 people aboard – 30 women, 8 men, and one child.  It quickly becomes apparent to the survivors that the lifeboat was not built to carry so many people and the occupants realise that the difference between life and death could be as simple as how many are in the boat when the weather deteriorate.
The power of the novel is the questions it raises.  Should they all live and die together, or is it acceptable for some to be sacrificed for the survival of others?  If so, who or how is the decision of who lives and dies made and is there a point where and anything is acceptable in the name of survival?    To what extent is Grace’s version of the story to be trusted given what she has to lose and the glimpses we get of her character as she tells her story?  A gripping read that keeps you pondering these questions long after the last page.

Thriller of the Month – Into the Darkest Corner

Were you a fan of SJ Watson’s Before I Go To Sleep last year?  If you were then you might want to try Elizabeth Haynes, Into the Darkest Corner.

The reader’s first introduction to the main character Catherine comes via a court transcript where she is portrayed as neurotic, jealous, and violent towards her boyfriend.  We are then taken to a murder scene that happened four years before.  What is the connection is the question going through my head – a  question for which the answer will not appear until the end of the book.
The next time we meet Catherine its 2007, two years after the court case, and she appears to still be battling her problems – this time obsessive compulsive disorder.   We travel back to 2003, and it’s a very different Catherine that we meet this time, one that is fun loving, drinking and partying to excess.  How can these two pictures of the same person be so totally different.  The 2003 Catherine meets wildly attractive and charismatic man, Lee, and is the envy of all her friends.  It becomes apparent that by 2007, much has changed for Catherine – she is paranoid about security and suspicious of the man who moves into the flat upstairs who is trying to be friendly.  Lee is no longer on the scene.
What has happened in those four years?  The events that led up to Catherine’s current behaviour are told in flashback and as the book progresses my heart begins to pound and the suspense builds, making me turn the pages well into the night unable to put the book down.  It’s not only the past that is so gripping but the story of Catherine’s current existence.  Strange things start happening and Catherine’s sense of safety is threatened or is she just imagining it.    To find out more, you’ll have to read the book!

Bookshots with Caroline Baum

I recently stumbled on to this website called “Bookshots with Caroline Baum” where Australian journalist, broadcaster, and presenter Caroline Baum features her interviews with Australian authors.  The interview with Denise Leith on her new book, What Remains caught my attention as I had just finished the book and it was very interesting to hear the author’s thoughts. 

I found What Remains very confronting but just couldn’t put it down.  The story starts in 1991 when we meet new journalist, Kate Price who has been sent by her newspaper to cover human interest stories of the people of Ridjha during the Gulf War. In order to get out to see the real war she enlists the help of experienced freelance photographers Pete and John and ends up covering the bombing of the infamous Highway of Death.

As the years pass the three become friends, meeting up in the war zones, exchanging news and sharing experiences. The reader is taken to Bosnia, Rwanda, Chechnya, and Baghdad, and immersed not only in the futility of war but the human side that tells the story of the people living through it including the effect that covering each war has on the three friends – normalising the violent world in which they live most of their lives and making the homes that they go back to hard to call home.  The attraction between Pete and Kate grows during the book but each time falters in the face of the misery around them.

Caroline Baum interviews Denise Leith for Bookshots-Extended version from Bookshots on Vimeo.

Denise mentions in the “Bookshots” interview, that in a fictionalised account, the author can make us feel the emotions of war as individual incidents are drawn out rather than concentrating on the political aspects which the broad coverage provided by newspapers focusses on.  I was certainly affected by the writing and was astonished to realise just how immune I had become to the reporting of conflicts when there seemed to be a different one in the paper every day.  This book raised questions in my mind about the way I emotionally dealt with war, and how complacent I feel living here in Australia.

Kate Grenville’s Newest – Sarah Thornhill

Have you read The Secret River by Kate Grenville?  If you have you might like to try Kate’s new novel, Sarah Thornhill, which takes us back to early Australia, the Hawkesbury River and the now prosperous Thornhill family.  The story is told from perspective of William Thornhill’s youngest daughter, Sarah whose life is so different from that of her convict-turned-landowner father.

Her stepmother calls her wilful, but handsome Jack Langland loves her and she loves him.  “Me and Jack, she thinks, what could go wrong?”  But there is a secret in Sarah’s family, a piece of the past kept hidden from the world and from her. A secret Jack can’t live with. A secret that changes everything, for both of them. 

As the book jacket says,  Sarah Thornhill is about love lost and found, tangled histoires and how it matters to keep stories alive.

Below is a video of Kate reading from the novel:

June Book Club – “When God was a Rabbit” by Sarah Winman

Last night, the store’s book club met to discuss Sarah Winman’s When God was a Rabbit and it was interesting to find that the book was one that some loved, most enjoyed, but two really didn’t like it. The  publisher describes When God was a Rabbit as “a mesmerising portrait of childhood and growing up: the loss of innocence, eccentricity and familial bonds.  Stripped down to its bare bones, it’s the story of the unbreakable bond between a brother and sister”.  However, for more information you might like to watch this youtube video featuring an interview with the author.
I think we all agreed that there were parts that we thought were beautifully written and as a debut novel the author showed great potential.  One of the interesting aspects of the novel was the number of gay characters although this was not a theme of the novel as being gay didn’t change the way they interacted with the other characters – they were just friends and family. I found this quite refreshing and I really appreciated the normality of it.
Surprising for me, was the reaction to the main character Elly.  Some liked her a lot, while a couple found her not very believable and considered that she narrated the story in language that a young child wouldn’t use, or that the humorous events described were a little contrived.  Having three children myself, I could imagine some of the funny events happening – the scene of the nativity play as Elly takes her revenge at being given the minor part of the innkeeper, and the Jubilee street party with Elly and Jenny singing Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody (complete with “fig roll” instead of Figaro) as Jenny’s mother is having words with someone trying to drive their car through the street baracade.  The latter made me think of evenings with the Playstation Singstar game as we tried to ad lib to the words of a favourite song.
Some felt that Elly lacked substance as a character, and that while her close relationship with her brother was a highlight when she was a child, it became a problem in the second half of the book when she was an adult.  I liked the author’s explanation in the youtube video that sometimes such a close relationship in childhood can become unhealthy in adulthood and considering that Ellie was home schooled, her brother at boarding school and closest friend left behind when they moved to the country, I can understand her reticence to forming close relationships in adulthood.  The other characters were generally thought of as quirky, with mention by the book club members of how they warmed to some of the minor characters – particularly Jenny Penny and Elly’s father.
I really enjoyed this book and thought it promoted a lot of good discussion on families and social norms.  You might like to try it with your book club.
Our July book club book is The Help by Kathryn Stockett, and I am looking forward to the discussion of this as it has been a favourite with customers of the store.  Let me know your thoughts if you have read it.

Book Club Book – Cutting for Stone, Abraham Verghese

I decided that I should read this book as it kept popping up on book club reading lists and I’m so glad that I did.  Don’t be put off by the length as it is 534 pages long.  It’s well worth the effort.
 The first third of the book follows the journey of two people, Sister Mary Joseph Praise, a young Carmelite nun and nurse, who sets out from India to further her medical knowledge in Yemen.  On the sea voyage there, she nurses British surgeon Thomas Stone, a fellow traveller on his way to  Mission Hospital in Ethiopia, who has fallen victim to chronic seasickness.  This meeting is to change both their lives, as they end up as a close team working together at the hospital.  The first third of the novel culminates with a shock – Sister Mary Joseph Praise is pregnant and about to give birth but complications leave her twin sons without a mother.  Abandoned by a grief stricken Thomas Stone who all believe to be their father,  Marian and Shiva are brought up by Hema, the obstetrician and gynaecologist who delivered them and Ghosh, a doctor at the Hospital who marries Hema. 
This book has many facets.  It is a story about people who are trying to change the medical outcomes in a third world country, as Hema and Ghosh become experts in their fields and treat the locals under difficult circumstances.  It is a story to make us open our eyes to the way a large part of the world’s population lives – the lack of resources in the hospital, the reliance on aid, the common occurrence of preventable diseases and injuries.
It is a story about a country in turmoil as Ethiopia’s people grow unhappy with the divide between those in power and the rest of the population which is just trying to survive.  This theme is revisited when Marian has to flee to America, where he works as a doctor at a hospital in the Bronx in New York where most doctors are recruited from overseas countries.  The story highlights that even in a developed country there is a divide between those living in the poor parts of the country whose hospitals are under resourced, and those with the money to pay who receive care from American trained doctors in well-equipped hospitals with prestigious reputations.
But most of all, it is a story of love – the love between unlikely people, the love between parents and their children, the love between the brothers Marian and Shiva, and the destructive love of Marian and Genet, their housekeeper’s daughter, and the love for their country as Genet gets caught up in Ethiopia’s quest for freedom from tyranny putting everyone she knows at risk.
I loved this book and am so glad that I finally got around to reading it.  If you like books in the style of “The Kite Runner”, for example, I’m sure you’ll like this one.  Definitely one for the book club reading list.

Fall of Giants by Ken Follet

For those who have been waiting for the paperback edition of Ken Follet’s book Fall of Giants, copies are in store now.

From the Macmillan website, here’s a synopsis of the book:

A huge novel that follows five families through the world-shaking dramas of the First World War, the Russian Revolution, and the struggle for votes for women.

It is 1911. The Coronation Day of King George V. The Williams, a Welsh coal-mining family, is linked by romance and enmity to the Fitzherberts, aristocratic coal-mine owners. Lady Maud Fitzherbert falls in love with Walter von Ulrich, a spy at the German Embassy in London. Their destiny is entangled with that of an ambitious young aide to U.S. President Woodrow Wilson and to two orphaned Russian brothers, whose plans to emigrate to America fall foul of war, conscription and revolution.

In a plot of unfolding drama and intriguing complexity, Fall of Giants moves seamlessly from Washington to St Petersburg, from the dirt and danger of a coal mine to the glittering chandeliers of a palace, from the corridors of power to the bedrooms of the mighty.

Ulysses Bookstore Book Club – March Meeting

I have had a number of customers who have expressed interest in attending a book club run by the store so I hope those interested can make the one planned for March.

The details are:
Where:  Ulysses Bookstore, Sandringham
When:   Thursday, 17 March 2011
Time:     7:30 p.m. until 9:00 p.m.

There will be a maximum of 12, with myself as moderator.
Tickets will be $5 or free with purchase of the book (keep your receipt as proof of purchase in case you decide to come at a later date).

Our first book to discuss will be:

One Hundred Foot Journey
Richard C. Morais, Allen & Unwin, $27.99

A quirky tale about an Indian family escaping from the violence at home, ultimately settle in France.  There they set up a Indian restaurant with all the colour and noise  that comes with it, across the road from the traditional French restaurant complete with Michellin stars. There are lots of references to food, restaurant kitchens, and interesting characters.

Here’s the synopsis from the publisher:

Abbas Haji is the proud owner of a modest family restaurant in Mumbai. But when tragedy strikes, Abbas propels his boisterous family into a picaresque journey across Europe, finally settling in the remote French village of Lumiere, where he establishes an Indian restaurant, Maison Mumbai.

Much to the horror of their neighbour, a famous chef named Madame Mallory, the Indian establishment opposite her own begins to garner a following. Little does she know that the young Hassan, son of Abbas, has discovered French cuisine and has vowed to become a great French chef. Hassan is a natural whose talents far outweigh Mme. Mallory, but the tough old Frenchwoman will not brook defeat.

Thus ensues an entertaining culinary war pitting Hassan’s Mumbai-toughened father against the imperious Mme. Mallory, leading the young Hassan to greatness and his true destiny.

This vivid, hilarious and charming novel – about how just a small distance of a hundred feet can represent the gulf between different cultures, different people, their tastes and their destinies – is simply bursting with eccentric characters, delicious flavours and high emotion.

You can read the reading notes for the book by following this link. and you can listen to an interview with the author who appeared on the Radio National programme, The Book Show” recently by clicking here.