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Book Review: Songlines by Carolyn Denman

Songlines by Carolyn Denman is a YA urban fantasy set on a sheep station in a fictional town in Victoria, Australia. Drawing on the beliefs of a number of religions, including Judeo-Christian and Indigenous traditions, the story revolves around the idea of an Eden that was transported to Australia for protection.

The novel starts out as Lainie Gracewood and her best friend Noah Ashbree are about to finish high school. When a mining company starts exploring near Lainie’s aunt’s sheep station, their farmhand, Harry, an Aboriginal Elder, reveals a family secret that rocks her to her core. She is unwilling to believe what he has told her, until Harry disappears on a quest to save the area from the miners, and Lainie discovers a link between herself, Noah, and Bane, the boy who has been the bane of her existence since she was five, that make it impossible to discount the revelation. She also realises that, with Harry gone, it is up to her and Noah to protect the land.

Denman’s depiction of the Australian landscape, life in a small rural town, and her version of Eden are clear and concise, the characters and their relationships well developed. The dialogue is vernacular and authentic, and Lainie has a clear teen voice. At times I found the plot somewhat slow, which reduced the build-up of suspense, however the second half of the book picked up the pace to an exciting and dramatic conclusion. An enjoyable read for those who like speculative fiction of a supernatural nature.

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Favourite Books for 2016

Lately I’ve seen a number of blog posts of people’s favourite reads for 2016. I find this so interesting, and helpful too, as I’m always on the lookout for a new author to try, or even a new genre to explore. I’ve encountered some of my favourite books in this way. And so, I thought I would share my own favourite reads for 2016, in the hopes that someone else might find a new author to love or expand their reading into a genre where they might not otherwise have ventured. I should perhaps clarify that these are not necessarily books that have been published in 2016, but rather books that I have read in 2016. So here goes, in no particular order.

The Dry by Jane Harper – A contemporary crime novel, I devoured this book in a very short time. Delving into the dark past of a small Australian town in the midst of a drought, Harper captures the atmosphere beautifully, not only the setting, but the relationships between the townspeople, the farmers and the shopkeepers, and the newly settled city folk seeking but not quite finding the peaceful country lifestyle. Beautifully written, the story nevertheless moves along at a good pace, keeping readers in suspense, and the pages turning.

Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey – I loved Jasper Jones. Set in the town of Corrigan Australia in the summer of 1965, the characters are engaging, the prose lyrical yet easy to read, the setting solid and real. Silvey has a unique voice, the ability to draw out tension and bring it to a feverish conclusion, all the while masterfully weaving in the subplots of this coming-of-age story. There is young love, racism, families falling apart and unspeakable secrets.

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty – Humorous and dark at the same time, Big Little Lies follows the lives of a group of parents whose children are just starting school. We’ve all been there, the group standing outside the classroom, waiting for our children to finish school, talking about play dates and packed lunches, the upcoming school concert and volunteering in the canteen. But what we don’t see are the secrets we all are holding, what goes on behind closed doors once we drive away from the school. Moriarty touches big issues that aren’t discussed openly; bullying, stereotyping, single parenting, domestic violence. And she does it well.

To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee – The one a classic, the other a new publication of an unpublished manuscript. The same story told from different points of view. I felt I had to re-read To Kill a Mockingbird to fully appreciate Go Set a Watchman. There have been varied reviews of this new publication, and while I don’t think it has the strength or vision of To Kill a Mockingbird, I do think it has its own merits, puts a new filter on the story, and is worth a read.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler – A beautiful insight into family love, a family in strife, and a young woman coming to terms with the grief of losing her beloved ‘twin’, losing touch with her brother and searching for her own identity.

The Trap by Melanie Raabe – A chilling psychological thriller, The Trap kept me on the edge of my seat. Linda Conrad has seen her sister’s killer. Twelve years later she sees his face again. She knows who he is. And she sets the perfect trap. But can she be absolutely certain he is the one?

The Good People by Hannah Kent – I have yet to finish this book, but I can already tell that it will be on my list of favourites for this year. I love a good historical novel, and Hannah Kent is developing a reputation as one of the best. Set in 19th century Ireland, The Good People follows the story of three women, Nora, a new widow struggling to survive on her own while caring for her disabled grandson, Mary, the fourteen year old servant girl Nora hires to help her, and Nance, a local wise-woman who has a reputation for being able to commune with ‘the Good People’, the fairies. Kent’s writing is beautiful and evocative. She has the ability to draw images with her words that plant the reader firmly in time and place, and draw empathy for her characters. This is one I will be sorry to finish.

Book Review: The Dry by Jane Harper

The Dry, by Jane Harper is fast-paced, suspenseful and utterly engaging. Federal police officer Aaron Falk returns to his home-town in rural Australia to attend the funeral of his childhood friend, Luke Hadler, who’s been accused of murdering his wife and child and then turning the gun on himself. Unable to accept that their son committed this terrible crime, Hadler’s parents convince Falk to help the local police with the investigation.

There is, of course, more to the case than is first apparent. The town of Kiewarra is steeped in hidden secrets, including the one that drove sixteen-year-old Falk and his father out of town twenty years previously, never to return. The townsfolk make it clear that Falk is unwelcome, and the more he delves into the events surrounding the Hadlers’ deaths, the more violently they express their displeasure.

Harper’s writing takes the reader effortlessly through Falk’s story. Her depiction of a rural Australian town caught in the midst of a drought is evocative. You can feel the heat, hear the flies buzzing, taste the dryness in the air. The tension simmers from the first page, and builds to a crescendo at a pace that keeps them turning. The characters are convincing and likeable. What more could you want from a good crime novel? I will definitely be looking for future works from this author. Highly recommended.

Book Review: About Grace by Anthony Doerr

About Grace, by Anthony Doerr, is the story of David Winkler, a scientist and a man with an unusual gift; prophetic dreams. The story starts out as Winkler (as he is consistently referred to in the book) flies to Alaska to determine the fate of his daughter, Grace. Twenty-five years earlier, having dreamt that Grace died in a flood while his was trying to rescue her, he abandoned his wife and infant daughter, fleeing to a remote Caribbean Island in an attempt to prevent the dream from coming true. What ensues is the story of his life as he seeks to come to terms with his actions, never quite certain whether they saved his daughter’s life or not.

Doerr’s prose is languid and evocative. The pace is leisurely and contemplative and the detail almost overwhelming at times. There are beautiful descriptions and explanations of snowflakes, shells, stars and insect habitation, as well as the settings of Alaska, Ohio and the Caribbean that place the reader firmly in Winkler’s world. However I did not find David Winkler to be a likeable character. His angst and indecision throughout the book, his unwillingness to help himself, combined with his social ineptness and his unerring ability to do the wrong thing was frustrating, and I did not feel myself empathetic towards him. While the story comes around in an arc to a satisfying conclusion, I was left feeling that Winkler’s was a life wasted, not by circumstance, although that was the inciting incident, but by his own character.

Book Review: Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey

I loved Jasper Jones. The characters were engaging, the prose lyrical yet easy to read, the setting solid and real. The story starts out with 13 year-old Charlie Bucktin reading late into the night, unable to sleep due to the oppressive heat of an Australian summer. Along comes Jasper Jones knocking on his window, urging him to come out. He desperately needs his help. Jasper is the outcast of the small mining town of Corrigan, mixed-raced and solitary, he is the first to be blamed when anything goes wrong. And yet Charlie finds him compelling and cannot resist the impulse to sneak out of the house and follow Jasper deep into the bush where he witnesses something that changes his life irrevocably.

Silvey has a unique voice, the ability to draw out tension and bring it to a feverish conclusion, all the while masterfully weaving in the subplots of this coming-of-age story. There is young love, racism, families falling apart and unspeakable secrets. Highly recommended.

Book Review: Room by Emma Donoghue

Room, by Emma Donoghue, is unusual, moving, and somewhat haunting. Told from the perspective of Jack, a 5 year-old boy, whose world is comprised of a single room, the soundproofed, reinforced garden shed in which his mother has been held captive since the age of 19. Having been told that Room, as he calls it, is the entirety of the real world, that he and his mother and ‘Old Nick’ are the only real humans, and that everything outside of Room is outer space, when circumstances force his mother to tell him the truth about the world, he greets it with anger and disbelief. Gradually, however, he comes to accept this unlikely truth, as he sees it, and agrees to a plan to help the both of them escape.

When I heard about this book, I immediately wanted to read it. And I wanted to like it. I expected to love it. I must say, however, that I found it hard to get into and almost gave up on it.

Jack’s voice, as a 5 year-old, was not convincing to me. Donoghue did a great job of keeping Jack’s perspective, of viewing things from the eyes of a boy who knew nothing of the world, who had never had to walk on an uneven surface, who had never worn shoes, who had never seen a dog or a tree, had never spoken to anyone other than his mother, who had never felt rain on his face or sunlight on his skin. However I found the language Jack used hard to read. A real mix of immature and unusual grammar, use of proper nouns for common items, personal pronouns for inanimate objects and misuse of verbs like ‘switch off’ for going to sleep and ‘waking up’ for lamps being turned on. Jack knows what sarcasm is, uses words like hideous and hilarious, can read Alice in Wonderland and knows that twice ten makes twenty. The language didn’t seem to fit, and I struggled with it at first.

I did read on, though, and I’m glad I did. As Jack and Ma escape into the real world, Jack experiences everything for the first time, and his wonder and fear and longing for the safety of ‘Room’, his mother’s prison, is endearing and heartbreaking. We journey with Jack as he learns to navigate the world, from windows and stairs and travelators to paying for items in a store, conversations with adults and his first interaction with another child. Jack’s view of the world is unique and insightful, his emotions raw and his imagination unending. The book left an impression that stayed with me for a long time. 3 ½ stars.

Book Review: The Shifting Fog by Kate Morton

Kate Morton’s The Shifting Fog, also published as The House at Riverton, is the story of two sisters, Hannah and Emmeline, and the secret they share. The story is told from the point of view of their housemaid, Grace, now 98 years old, whose memories are sparked by a film director intent on making a film about the manor house at Riverton and the events that led to the tragic death of a young poet in the summer of 1924.

Morton masterfully captures the essence of the Edwardian age, evoking images of the glitter and extravagances of the upper class, as well as the drudgery of the working and living conditions of those ‘in service’, and effectively conveys the attitudes and mindset of the various characters.

Grace is a likeable character, especially in her 98-year-old self. There are times, however, when it seems that she is lurking in the background for the sole purpose of seeing and telling the story of Hannah and Emmeline. Her fascination for the two sisters, and their brother David, seems to start as an only child’s yearning for the company of others her age, and a fascination for the types of games they play that were never a part of her lower-class upbringing. However it soon becomes an obsession that continues into adulthood as a fixation on and loyalty to Hannah that is somewhat unbelievable in the sacrifices she makes.

The mystery is alluded to throughout the book, but does not really start to unravel until the second half of the book. At that point the pace picks up, accelerating to what seems a preordained climax, fated in the way of classic tragedies by misunderstandings, misguided loyalty, untold secrets and an inability to halt the inevitable.

Overall an enjoyable read for those who love historical mystery, romance and the unshakable tragedy of secret love triangles.


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