Category Archives: Reviews

THE GLASS KINGDOM by Chris Flynn: Book Review

In closing my review of Chris Flynn’s novel A Tiger in Eden, I referred to the author’s bio which tells us that he was once a sumo-wrestling referee in a travelling fair and I noted there was a novel in that, for sure.

While The Glass Kingdom is not about a sumo-wrestling referee, it does centre on a travelling carnival.

glass kingdom

Part One is narrated by Corporal Benjamin Wallace, a man I warmed to immediately (although if Ben was real, he wouldn’t take kindly to my choice of words there). I felt a great empathy for this big bear of a disfigured soldier, despite the fact that he’s a hell of a bad-assed drug dealer. Flynn is good at getting the reader to care about what should be an unsympathetic character.  He certainly did that in A Tiger in Eden and he’s done it again here in The Glass Kingdom. However, my sympathy and empathy didn’t quite extend to Mikey Dempster (more about him later).

Benjamin’s injuries (sickening burns and psychological trauma) come courtesy of his tour in Uruzgan but there are other injuries dating back to his childhood when this son of a “tattooed lady who swallowed swords and danced wearing naught but her ink” (104) and a repugnant and controlling father, tried to run away from the travelling show.

Benjamin/Ben/Benji/the soljer has a way of looking at the world through blood-tinted glasses.  He’s a sharp-shooting, hard-living, tough-talking guy who tells it like it is, sometimes with a wry smile:

Just as well nine mils weren’t available to young blokes in Australia.  There’d be no men aged fourteen to thirty left standing.  The dickheads would all shoot each other. (11)

The travelling carnival can be a lively affair but there are nights when drought and poverty and unemployment can be a drag on the spirits.  Flynn has the down-and-out country family down pat:

The kids would stare at the shiny rides with their hollowed-out eyes and occasionally risk a pleading stare at their fathers.  The men would gaze into the middle distance, giving a shake of the head. (15)

Inside a country pub, Ben elbows his way through “a crowd of flannel shirts” (25) where the dance floor is “obscured by a forest of thin denim legs” (27) and you can soon tell that, with his sidekick Mikey on the loose, the proverbial is going to hit the fan.  When it does, the fight scene comes to life frighteningly on the page.

It’s a very Australian novel in a kind of outback, commodore-loving, laconic way where drivers chuck “a skidding uey” (52) and fights break out in pubs at the drop of a hat.  “A Mustang’s all well and good,” muses Ben about his girlfriend’s dream car “until the fucken exhaust falls off in the middle of the Hume” (48).

In this first part, the character of Mikey is an absolute gem and a perfect foil for the taciturn Ben. Mikey, with his outrageously funny hip-hop rap is basically a “grommet from Freo” (13) [for those unfamiliar with Aussie slang; that’s a young surfer from Fremantle in Western Australia] who’s hoisting up his pants and puffing out his chest and trying to make some sort of mark on the world without expending too much energy.

Part Two ‘Voltan, Master of Electricity’, is narrated by an ageing electrician and life-long member of the travelling Fair whose memories will fade as his dementia increases and this section serves as a clever device to highlight some of the difficulties Ben endured as a youngster.  Voltan’s reminiscences help to solidify our sympathy for Ben:

He left the Kingdom for good, one fateful autumn day, and he died, that boy, in some foreign desert. I mourn his passing when I think of him.  Someone else came back, you see – a man none of us knew, a man utterly changed, a young prince returned from the great war of our time to reclaim his throne. (116)

Voltan has a story of his own and when I read “That tale is for another day…” (105), it occurred to me that it might not be the last we hear of this quirky character.  I am confident there would be a worthy story in the life of this son of a miner who was followed to Australia across the ocean by “something of the dread atmosphere in the mining village” (105).

Part Three is narrated by Mikey (AKA Mekong Delta) and it is here where my interest in the story waned. I enjoyed Mikey when I saw him through Ben’s eyes “(there was a tiny bit of handsome hidden underneath that fake-gangster exterior)” (20) but couldn’t warm to him on his own. The argot of this wannabe US gangster-rap hip-hop Aussie lout, while perfectly realised, becomes too much of a strain to read, once his character becomes the focus.  In addition, I couldn’t find the sympathy I’d mustered for Ben and I just yearned for the soldier to come back and take the starring role again.

When Ben did eventually return in ‘O Dark Hundred’, it didn’t satisfy me.  He seemed to have lost his original voice and slightly morphed into something half Ben/half Mikey with a bit of silliness thrown into the mix.

In a desperate bid to get some perspective on my ambivalence toward the latter part of the book, I searched for any similar questions raised by other reviewers.  Of the few reviews I found, no-one’s climbing in my boat. Tony Birch reviewed The Glass Kingdom for the Australian Book Review and Alan Vaarwerk (who found Mikey to be a “real stand-out”) reviewed for ReadingsJames Tierney (Sydney Morning Herald) goes so far as to dub part three, in Mikey’s voice, as “quite simply a tour-de-force”.  So, clearly, I am alone on choppy seas when it comes to my dislike of the manic Mikey and my resentment that he played such a big part.

I am pleased to say that my non-relationship with Mikey was not enough to negate the fascinating, rampaging romp that is the first part of the novel and, coming on the back of A Tiger in Eden, I feel The Glass Kingdom has cemented Flynn as a writer of considerable muscle. Can’t wait for the next one.

My thanks, once again, to ANZ Litlovers where this review is cross-posted.

BOOK DETAIL:
Flynn, Chris. The Glass Kingdom, The Text Publishing Company, Melbourne, 2014.
ISBN: 9 781922 147882

 

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Lost & Found by Brooke Davis: Book Review

I love original Australian literary voices and I’ve found a new one I fancy … Brooke Davis., a prize-winning writer of fiction with a PhD from Curtin University in WA. Lost and Found is, in her words, her ‘first proper novel’ and what a corker it is. My little margin notes include lots of ohs and wows, *s and !s, omgs and clevers.

Incidentally, Yvette Walker’s Letters to the End of Love, which I reviewed here, also emerged from the same program at Curtin University as Lost and Found.

lost-found

Lost and Found is about life and love and loss. It’s about character, in all meanings of the word (Collins English Dictionary: a combination of qualities, one such quality, reputation, representation of a person, an outstanding person and [even] a symbol used in writing [refer to Karl the Touch Typist]).

After I read the story, I realised what a great job Christabella Designs have done with the cover design. Perfection.

Let me introduce you to Davis’s characters:-

Millie Bird

Millie is a little abandoned girl with spunk and attitude and a way with words.  When Millie saw an old man killed (hit by a car) “He looked back at her like he was only a drawing.  She ran her fingers over his wrinkles and wondered what he’d used each one for.”(5)

Millie is trying to find a place for herself in the world, endeavouring to understand why adults act the way they do.  She ruminates on existing words and why you can’t use them all.  Without a guiding book, “you were just supposed to know” (104-105) which words were not okay.

Examples of things you weren’t allowed to say, to anyone, at any time:
How fat are you?
Do you have a vagina or a penis?
What kind of funeral do you want when you die? (105)

Karl the Touch Typist

Karl grieves for his wife. “It felt strange to breathe when she couldn’t.” (20) He touch-types on all manner of apparatus, from thin air to small children’s heads. Wondering about himself, about his life, about his place in the world, Karl thinks that “In the world of punctuation, he might have been a dash – floating, in between, not necessarily required.” (87) What a delightfully clever gem of a sentence that is.

Agatha Pantha

Agatha has been alone for years, trapped in her house with television static, yelling to everyone and no-one as she moves between her Chairs: of Disbelief, of Degustation, of Discernment, of Resentment, of Disagreement, of Disengagement. Agatha’s dissertation on funerals and their aftermath of people “hulking casseroles full of dead animals, and pity” and materialising in her house, “cocking their head to one side and clawing at her” (53-54) is both hilarious and sad.

These three beautifully sketched characters – Millie, Karl and Agatha – collide; their personalities and peccadillos bouncing around off one another, forming a vortex of comedic possibilities.

Cameo Appearances

The dieting Helen:
The Atkins one? Is it Atkins? Or CSIRO? You get to smell all the food you want.” (41).
While purchasing cake: “They’re not for me, Helen says. I’m on a diet.  The North Beach one? Kate Moss uses it.  You can hold all the food you like.” (44)

Manny: Yes, he might be plastic but he has a definite presence (with or without all his limbs).

Karl’s wife Evie left him a pouch of letters – F I G T R O O – a mystery for him to solve, a life puzzle perhaps? Evie was a calm and stable person:

Every word felt measured out, like she’d poured her words into measuring cups and flattened out the tops of them before she upended them into the world. (167)

Stella is a platinum-hearted bus driver who has a bath in which, according to Mille, one can make “entire cities out of bubbles”. (136)

Lost and Found is a showcase for Davis’s superb sense of humour, her perfect grasp of craft, and an originality that makes me positively green.

The structure is interesting.  In part one, the ‘Millie’ chapters are divided into the days of waiting, interspersed with facts that she knows.  Agatha’s time is broken into days and, within those days, into sections of time. And Karl is sectioned by things that he knows: things he knows about love, for example, and things he knows about sadness.

Davis knows how to worry away at your heart-strings, like when Millie has an overwhelming urge to snuggle up to a woman who “smells like a mum” (183)

But you should be able to hug all the mums who aren’t yours, because some people don’t have mums and what are they supposed to do with all the hugs they have? (183)

It’s a page-turner too.  Just like Millie, we feel compelled to find her mother.  But it also becomes increasingly important to find out the meaning of the jumble of letters Karl’s wife left for him.

There was a point (about half way through part three) where I wondered if the story had become a bit too farcical. Karl and Agatha start yelling on the train, Derek the conductor is stamping his foot and throwing paper, and Manny is flung over Karl’s shoulder.  It was just a little too slapstick for a few pages and it’s just not a style I’m comfortable with. The writing here seemed very visual, clashing a little with the rest of the novel.  I also thought it took a detour into some sort of ‘Kids Own Adventure Tale’ with Millie and her friend Jeremy each taking on Superhero status. Minor quibble and I’d be interested to know if anyone else agrees.

I love how Agatha’s rigid time frames (e.g. “6.25: Pours the remainder of her Bonox down the sink. 6.26: Removes all her clothes” (68)), goes through various degrees of rigidity before segueing to “Morning(ish) Agatha Standard Time” (252).

And you’ve just got to check out Millie’s idea of constructing a poem.  Brilliant. I can’t stop doing it myself now … in the supermarket, on the train. Delicious fun.

Reviewing for The West Australian, Ian Nichols writes: “The painstaking care that went into the novel is evident in the poetic, economical prose.”

Rosemarie Milsom (for Newcastle Herald) wasn’t always fond of Davis’s supporting cast of “quirky, laconic characters” and found Manny to be a “jarring” inclusion (conversely, I loved them, especially Manny).

The novel generated a big buzz at the London Book Fair and has been sold around the world, being translated into 20 languages.

BOOK DETAIL:
Davis, Brooke Lost & Found, Hachette Australia, Sydney, 2014.
ISBN: 978 0 7336 3275 4
Thanks to Lisa Hill at ANZLitlovers (where my review is cross-posted) for the opportunity to review this gem of a book.

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The Trouble With Flying and other stories: Book Review

Kate Rotherham’s ‘Potholes’ is a standout piece in the 2014 Margaret River Short Story Competition collection (The Trouble With Flying and other stories).  Perhaps it has something to do with its upbeat humour amongst some melancholy, introspective stories.  Maybe it is the even pace. Or the originality. I suspect it is all of these things and much more.

Harry has read a magazine article entitled ‘Ten ways to a happier life’ and these numbered suggestions (such as express yourself creatively and find your passion) thread their way in and out of ‘Potholes’.  Harry does indeed find a way to express himself creatively and ticks another of the recommendations by practis[ing] senseless acts of beauty.

Harry’s father Les is one of those in-my-day, too-busy-working kind of dads common to his milieu who’s “never met a child yet who didn’t have ADHD” (127).  After retirement, Les was bombarded with options, all of which he declined to embrace; his response to the idea of a Wednesday evening watercolour class being “I’d rather stab myself in the eyeball with a fork” (129), and when he finds an excuse to visit his old workplace he realises that, without him, the place has become “officially Aspergers Central” (129).

‘Potholes’ is a beautiful, uplifting, original story that made me laugh.  I find myself thinking about Harry as I go about mundane tasks. It is pleasant to be reminded of the possibility of beauty in the prosaic.

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I have had a soft-spot for Margaret River Press since I reviewed their first collection in 2012, followed up by a review of the 2013 competition collection as well as their first full-length work of fiction, Finding Jasper by Lynne Leonhardt.

There’s always something a little bit quirky to love about the actual printing of the books. In the case of this 2014 collection, it’s the beautiful bird headpiece that ‘plumbs’ onto the reverse and flows through the book in the form of arty section breaks. Both the impressive cover and the text design are by Susan Miller. Clever.  Perfect.

Back to the stories . . .

Claire Aman gets a nod for the originality she conjured in ‘Zone of Confidence’, a love story written with the same chutzpah afforded its spunky protagonist. I delighted in this poetic sentence I found hidden amongst more direct text: “At least there are no clouds marauding in the sky, only a white daytime moon tossed up high” (176).

‘My House’ by Rachelle Rechichi tells the story of a family in the grips of despair and, while seemingly vulnerable, there is a deep underlying strength evident in the narrator, May.  Strangely, the tale is ultimately uplifting.  I think it is because of the survival instinct we can read into May’s personality.

Melanie Kinsman’s ‘A Paper Woman’ is a poignant tale of a narrator battling disease. The story opens with a punch:

Before you came I spent a bitter winter.  My heart froze in my chest. The hospital sheets lay thin and flat against my ribcage. My breasts had been cut off, and a slash of a scar lay in their place. (228)

Kinsman’s words cut precisely to the heart of illness and its surrounding accoutrements, the narrator’s hospital stay a “macabre vacation” (230) from her usual life as she felt like a “fledgling woman: unmade, unfinished, an amputee” (230).  She later describes herself as “a paper woman, thin and flammable”, to which her lover’s gaze is a match (235).

In ‘Tear Along the Dotted Lines’, Melanie Napthine uses clever simile, metaphor and imagery.

  • Ants that might be attracted by food left out … “would have the bench coated in them, a sheet of shifting black like the hair of a drowned girl” (269)
  • A watermarked ceiling sports a “swinging nude globe blindly supervising” (270)
  • A “train arrives, with a difficult slowing that its cool silver skin contradicts” (267-8)

I thoroughly enjoyed Glen Hunting’s ‘Martha and the Lesters’.  The story tackles a difficult theme with great humour.  It’s narrated by Roland (his family was “fairly progressive by wheatbelt standards” (304)) who lodges with the feisty Martha and a collection of spiders who Martha says don’t love her. “They’re only here for the books.  I’m certain they come down and pore over them at night when I’m asleep” (305).

Anyone who has suffered severe pain will likely relate to the protagonist’s predicament in the simply and aptly titled ‘Dying’ (Bindy Pritchard). “She learnt how to chase her pain, dip under it and fly beside it until it fitted her body perfectly.” (338)

It is interesting that, of my favourites singled out in this review, Pritchard and Rechichi are the only prize-winners (Pritchard scored second place for ‘Dying’ and Rechichi won the prize for the best story from a South West resident with her story ‘My House’).  That’s why I enjoy short story collections. You might not love all the stories but there are usually some that resonate.  And there’s lots to love in this collection. I even enjoyed the introduction (quite out of character for me) by Richard Rossiter and Susan Midalia.

So there you go . . . my love affair with Margaret River Press continues.

Check out their website where you can purchase The Trouble with Flying and other publications, find stockists, and read about forthcoming events.

The winning entry in this 2014 competition is, as the title of the book suggests, ‘The Trouble with Flying’ (a coming of age tale) by Ruth Wyer. Congratulations to the Sydney-based ‘fledgling’ writer. When you purchase the book, make sure you check out her bio which is quite a hoot. 

BOOK DETAIL
The Trouble with Flying and other stories. Ed. Richard Rossiter with Susan Midalia, Margaret River Press, Witchcliffe, WA, 2014.
ISBN 978-0-9875615-2-7

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Win a copy of just_a_girl

Tomorrow is D-day.  Get your entry in to win a copy of just_a_girl.  The author herself – Kirsten Krauth – has agreed to choose the winner.

Enter 25 words or less in the comments section below or, if it is easier for you, send your entry via email to ‘kt at karenleethompson dot com’ (in the usual format) and I will enter it. Only first names will be posted online.  Get your entries in by Wednesday 12th March 2014.  The winner will be announced soon after and can provide mailing address (Australian only). How easy is that?!

You can see the entries we have already received here.

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Win a copy of just_a_girl by Kirsten Krauth

justagirl_web_mainEdn

Here’s your opportunity to win a copy of Kirsten Krauth’s just_a_girlAll you need to do is come up with a 25 word (or less) piece (fact or fiction) which includes the words ‘just a girl’ for your chance to win.

Check out my review and, if the book appeals, post your entry into the comments below.  If it is easier for you, send your entry via email to ‘kt at karenleethompson dot com’ (in the usual format) and I will enter it. Only first names will be posted online.  Get your entries in by Wednesday 12th March 2014.  The winner will be announced soon after and can provide mailing address (Australian only). How easy is that?!

REVIEW

Layla is so much more than just_a_girlThe pivotal character in Kirsten Krauth’s debut novel is sassy and outrageous, tough and soft.  At once courageous and timid; worldly and naïve. And I came to care about her deeply. I cared about her mother Margot too.

But let’s talk about the men for a moment.

Layla’s casual boyfriend is quite the piece of work:

Davo says you can never trust anything that bleeds once a month but doesn’t die.  He tells this to his mates and they honk like donkeys. (73)

He proves himself to be as gutless as he is crass.

Layla’s dad – despite being benign – is a little too fond of his boutique beer and red wine to notice the impact of his words upon Layla.

There’s a predator extraordinaire who is charismatic as he is determined.

And then there is Tadashi who is not really in Layla’s world. He merely orbits and, when they do meet, there is little impact.  At first, I questioned the inclusion of this lonely man with his battered suitcase and his love of ritual.  I found him interesting but wondered at his place here – unconnected and insulated.  Should he be in this story at all? Didn’t he warrant a life in his own novel? But, as his layers were peeled back and as his companion and lover Mika was revealed, I understood the subtle depth of Krauth’s symbolism. Mika is most unusual but she is still just_a_girl in an incongruous way.

Now, to the girls…

Layla’s mother, Margot, is – in her own way – just_a_girl.  She is an emotionally challenged, needy woman whose maternal instincts are just below the surface, itching her skin, but still slightly beyond her grasp. Her struggle with depression oozes from her internal monologue:

…and I wake up one day and I can’t keep up, there’s no way I can get out of bed, my body is listless and my brain tries to argue with it but there is no response and I remember wanting to become Sleeping Beauty… (121)

Layla’s granny too is, in some part, just_a_girl, with her youthful stories about trains and the war on ‘permanent loop’ (89).

Even Tadashi’s lover is – at least in his eyes – just_a_girl with her ‘skin the smooth colour of pine nuts’ (50); with her freshness and faithfulness. ‘The thing about Mika was, she was durable.’ (157)

But it is Layla who steals the show.

Krauth has resisted any temptation to pepper the pages with too many LOLs or email banter. There’s minimal text speak, a mere smattering of hellos and likes.  We get just enough facebook and online action to provide the impact for the mysterious ‘guy formally known as youami33’ (1) and to show just how close to the edge Layla teeters.  Krauth nails the random scatter-gun teenage voice perfectly, using bullet points and decapitated sentences to give a unique expression to the main protagonist. Reviewing for The Australian, Jo Case notes that Layla’s voice is ‘written in a lolling teenage dialect, characterised by broken, staccato sentences and a string of verbal tics, such as “f . . kadoodle” and “starvin marvin”. The effect is sometimes awkward but authentically adolescent.’ Here’s my rundown on Layla:

  • Hysterically funny. When Layla’s mother gives a less-than enthusiastic reaction to the earrings Layla stole for her Christmas present:  ‘I’m tempted to knock her out with the Good News Bible.  Before reclaiming the earrings as my own. Born-agains are just so stingy.’ (10)
  • Perceptive. Referring to Christmas: ‘Mum saves up all her darkness for this special day’ (9). Questioning her own motivation: ‘Am I like Long Island Lolita? Do I really just want to get caught? (207)
  • Typical. ‘I’m in my poxy school uniform.’ (1) and ‘My brain goes mashed spud’ (53)
  • Alone in a harsh world. ‘He’s looking at the floor at people’s shoes.  I start to pant on the inside.  Oh god please don’t see me.  Please leave me alone…His long curly hair reaches down his back.  Jesus on speed.  Crucified eyes find me…My fellow cabin-dwellers refuse to see him…’ (88-89)
  • Far too knowing. ‘I sit opposite an older guy. Businessman type. The kind who commutes for a hundred grand a year. I slowly unwrap a Chupa Chup… Oh-so-slowly, lick and twist and suck and turn…’ (91-92).
  • Sometimes cruel. As a girl scorned, she causes online havoc to her ex-boyfriend and it is frightening to see the ease with which she stalks and terrifies a girl with just one email.
  • Often frustrating. I wanted to reach into the pages and shake her.  Layla’s mature intuition surfaces when you wish it wouldn’t and takes a hike when it is most needed.
  • Layla is all of the above.  And yet, she is just_a_girl.

Bravo Kirsten Krauth.

Author Annabel Smith described the novel as ‘gritty and confronting’ (see her review on Goodreads).

Lisa Hill reviewed just_a_girl at ANZ LitLovers and found it to be an ‘impressive debut novel’.

Give us your 25 word or less entry to win a copy of just_a_girl.  You can either post your entry below or email to kt at karenleethompson dot com.

BOOK DETAIL:
Krauth, Kirsten. just_a_girl, UWA Publishing, Crawley, WA. 2013.
ISBN: 9781742584959

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Meatloaf in Manhattan by Robert Power: Book Review

The title story in Robert Power’s 2014 collection (Transit Lounge) took out second place in The Age short story award in 2011.  The tale spotlights both the gullibility and the callousness of a young man visiting the Big Apple. What better place than New York to purchase dried onion rings masquerading as weed and to pose as a blind guy as a pickup ruse, only to let it all loose with barely a flicker of guilt after Budweiser and Wild Turkey work their magic. It’s a sad tale in a jaded sort of way but also quite funny.  The hallway in the apartment in which Frank dosses is piled high with newspapers,  ‘A bit like the trenches in the First World War, but drier’ (25) and the mattress sports ‘cigarette burns that look like bullet holes’ leading Frank to picture it as an execution backdrop (26).

Meatloaf

Firenze & Snowball is a bittersweet tale of the lure of alternative lives available in online worlds.  In this case, the online world is ‘Alterlife’ which is, as far as I can ascertain, a fictional account of ‘Second Life’.  Some years ago, I did an anthropological study of ‘Second Life’ and can attest to its ability to provide a completely believable alternative universe (in which one can easily and subconsciously replicate unwanted traits and experiences).

In the case of Power’s story, Snowball (so called because ‘he’s so white on account of being indoors so much with his head in a computer’ (14)) scores a gig for his ‘songwriter Goth’ best friend.  Circumstances cascade until the fictional singer/songwriter ‘Firenze’ hits the big time.  It is a story about money and what it can and cannot buy, and it has something profound to say about friendship and happiness.

In ‘She calls her boy Amazing’, Ny is a young Vietnamese boy adored by his mother despite a ghastly conception at the hands of bedraggled and filthy men with ‘sea-madness in their faces, deep scars on their souls’ (38)’.  When Ny finds himself motherless, Old Man Luc becomes his guardian and mentor.  Luc eventually arranges for Ny to go to school in Ho Chi Minh City. ‘And then, who knows how wide your wings will spread, how far you will fly?’ (45). Luc assures his young charge, who has never stopped hoping for his mother’s return, that he will watch out for her every night. ‘I will go to the platform and tell her of your progress and she will smile and be at peace’ (45).

I will be in Vietnam next month and will quite possibly scour the railroad platform in Danang looking for an ‘Old Man Luc’ to sell me a bouquet of flowers and I will think of a little boy like Ny far away at school.

‘The Visit’ showcases an unusual playing with the narrative mode so that the narrator speaks of his mother thus:  ‘Once, though it feels like an age away now, she was tall and strong and as sharp as a pin’ and then switches (within the same paragraph) to ‘How I loved being with you then’ (48-49). This she/you switch is clever and seems to complement the flow of the narrative beautifully.  Power’s word choices and sentence structures throughout ‘The Visit’ indicate an unhurried and well-edited manner of working.

I sit opposite the woman who is my mother.  Her hair, long whitened by the twist of her mind, is now yellowed by surrender.’ (47)

‘The I Zingari Cap’, ‘Zorro the Chess Master’ and ‘Synge’s Chair’ all touch on father/son relationships and the circle of life, and ‘The Shoe Lovers’ is delightfully clever with the twist it hints at in the opening paragraph and the altogether unexpected one that is delivered on the closing page.

‘Grooming’ is more of a plot-driven piece (where most of the other stories seemed to explore character to a greater extent) and the plot is just a little too contrived. Conversely, ‘Buffalo Bill and the Psychiatrist’, while obscure, is both darkly funny and maddeningly thought-provoking.

One of my favourite shorts in this collection is ‘The Postman Gets a Letter’.  The Postman is a beautifully realised character who has tried to make life easier for his depressed wife by finding her a caravan by the sea where she can nurture her wounded soul.  At the same time and in the absence of romance, excitement and/or children, he has channelled his energies into the all-consuming hobby of chronicling the history of the country town in which he lives.

The Postman’s wife reveals her unhappiness – and eventually the secret she has kept from him – by way of a letter she writes from ‘down on the tip of Port Phillip Bay’ (174) with ‘the waves heaving back and forth, oblivious forever to the fears and joys of those passing by’ (165-166). Her demons are stronger than their love, she writes to her husband.  When she tells him of the back story she has invented of a ‘tall, handsome, teenage son’ (169), it’s time for the tissue box. This mythical son has a name and a sense of humour, and she has a reserve of created ‘memories’.  It is, indeed, heartbreaking.

The Postman has a secret of his own and it is amusing to wonder about the impact of his secret on the lives of so many people.  There could be another set of stories in that.

This collection was produced with the assistance of the Australia Council for the Arts.  It’s engaging short fiction and I’m sure I’ll be dipping back into it from time to time.

My thanks to Lisa Hill of ANZ LitLovers where this review is cross-posted.

BOOK DETAIL:
Power, Robert. Meatloaf in Manhattan, Transit Lounge, Melbourne. 2014.
ISBN: 978-1-921924-64-4

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SISTERS OF THE BRUCE by JM Harvey: Book Review

I am thrilled to hold in my hands a copy of the historical novel Sisters of the Bruce by JM Harvey.  The author is a good friend of mine and I was delighted to have the opportunity to read and comment on this, her first novel, in its manuscript form.  It was with some trepidation that I initially took on the task of appraising the manuscript, as 13th century Scotland is outside my standard reading material but it turned out to be quite an entertaining page-turner.  So here then, is my review…

 Sisters

This fictionalized account of the lives of Isa, Kirsty, Mary, Mathilda and Margaret – the sisters of Robert the Bruce – brings Scottish history to life, variously through nail-biting action sequences, breathtaking accounts of deprivation and heartbreak, and through the easier rhythmic epistolary conversations of the sisters which lend immediacy to the narrative.

The juxtaposition of the everyday recounted in the sisters’ letters, with the raging wars of the period affords a glimpse into the past, an experience more profound and enjoyable than any history book could provide.

Readers with an interest in Scotland, Scottish history or history in general will find this an enjoyable read.  However, it would by no means be limited to that demographic.  As a reader, I have no particular interest in history or Scotland and was enticed more by the idea of the strength of these women who I knew nothing about. There is definite appeal to lovers of Literary fiction also, through the epistolary form which allows for domestic intimacy alongside the sweeping catastrophic events of the Scottish Wars of Independence.

With a deft touch, the author introduces the readers to the language of the time and place and keeps them there easily.  Each of the female characters maintains her own distinctive voice through her correspondences.

While much of the lives of the sisters may seem alien to our 21st century sensitivities, other parts traverse time and space.  Isa’s sadness upon her first child being still-born for instance: ‘Little enough chance either to even gaze upon his small, perfect features before his tiny body was ripped from my arms and placed – who knows where?’ (54) and, later, the joy of a dog gifted to her:- ‘When the little mite’s pink tongue licked my hand, the world seemed to come back into focus, alive with colour once more.’ (57)

Mary’s time in the cage is told with such fierce brutality that we can feel her pain and her rage and humiliation, achingly brought forth here:- ‘To drift and fall effortlessly upon demand through time’s lucent barrier was her only path to freedom.’ (266)

The spirit, manners and social conditions of the age are imparted seamlessly in the sisters’ letters and Harvey has a knack for melding the universal with the particular to sketch thoughts and feelings:-

  • ‘…my heart felt as if it would shatter into so many pieces it could never find repair – much like Mhairi’s precious salt urn which Thomas knocked over all those years ago.’ (26)
  • ‘With the passage of time, the bulbs I planted on my dear husband’s grave blossom beautifully, as if fed from beneath by the goodness of his spirit.’ (129)
  • ‘Thankful for the dark, lest his men see the quick, bright tears and think him the weaker for it, Robert quickly cleared his throat…’ (221)

The author showcases an original voice and a considered approach to words and imagery:-

  • ‘As rumour and fact collided and sparked along the darkened corridors of early morn…’ (3)
  • ‘An early blanket of snow fell just last week.  It is very quiet as if the land lies in a deep trance.’ (98)
  • ‘Moss-green ripples foamed white beneath the royal dragon-ship as it strained against the ropes.’ (103)
  • ‘In their bright, beaded eyes, she saw reflected the wild freedom of the skies.’ (226)
  • Memories that ‘were inconsistent and as fragile as a moth’s wing.’ (352)

It is easy to grasp a sense of the enormous strength of the sisters early in the story and the sentiments remain long after the final word.  Here is Mary’s almost unbearable pain as told by Mathilda in her letter to Isa:  ‘At times, you can look into her eyes and see she is lost somewhere in a dark vale of sorrow and regret and unfathomable pain.’ (409)

          Sisters of the Bruce is an exceptional epic novel.  The extensive research involved shines through the narrative and I would highly recommend it not only to those interested in the history of Scotland but to anyone who enjoys reading about the strength and resilience of women.  It will also appeal to people (like me) who enjoy the intimacy of a story told through private fictional letters. It is a sprawling read of intimate domesticity and vast adventure, at once alien and familiar.

BOOK DETAIL
Harvey, J.M. Sisters of the Bruce, Matador, Leicestershire, UK, 2013.
ISBN: 978 1780885 018

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