Tag Archives: General Fiction

The Diviner’s Tale

Mystery thriller novel about a water diviner who finds a lost girl

Content warning: kidnapping, sexual assault, Alzheimer’s disease

I picked up this book at the Lifeline Book Fair for one reason and one reason only: the tinted edges. Like many of the books I have been reviewing recently, this is another one that has languished on my to-read pile. So between all the fantasy, the books turned into adaptations and the other books with tinted edges, I decided it was time to read this one.

Image is of “The Diviner’s Tale” by Bradford Morrow. The paperback book is resting in grass next to a stick in the shape of an arrow. The cover is of a girl in a white dress standing in a misty, green forest. The book has blood red tinted page edges.

“The Diviner’s Tale” by Bradford Morrow is a mystery thriller novel about a woman called Cassandra who, between teaching classes in remedial reading and Greek myths and raising her twin boys as a single parent, has followed in her father’s footsteps as a water diviner. One day while dowsing land for a property, Cassandra sees the body of a young girl hanged from a tree. When she alerts the authorities, including her old friend and local sheriff Niles, and returns to the location the girl, all traces of her is gone. Cassandra is under a lot of stress with family challenges, and initially people think she must have imagined it. However, when a different girl emerges from the woods after being reported missing, Cassandra must acknowledge the visions that she has had since she was young, and face the traumas of her past before they catch up with her.

This was a readable, character-driven book that has a really strong sense of place. From Upstate New York to Mount Desert Island, Maine, Morrow engages deeply with the landscape and using Cassandra’s skills as a diviner to explore the geology and flora of the area was a unique way to do it. I liked the tension within Cassandra and her dad Nep between belief in the artform of dowsing and worry that they are nevertheless frauds. Cassandra of course is named after the Cassandra of Greek mythology, and while this isn’t the first modern day interpretation of Cassandra’s prophecies I’ve read, it was well done. I thought that his depiction of a parent living with Alzheimer’s disease was done well, and I loved Cassandra’s relationship with her twin boys, and their relationship in turn with their grandparents. I also liked that her kids Morgan and Jonah began to develop their own identities as the book progressed.

However, this is a dark book and the elements of her past that Cassandra tries to forget are very confronting. While thinking back on this book, it occurred to me that overwhelmingly Cassandra’s relationships were with men: her father, her sons, her ex-lovers and her friends. Her relationship with her mother is a little tense, and while I appreciated that she had a reputation for being a bit eccentric, I think perhaps I would have liked more women in this book (aside from Cassandra herself) than mothers and victims.

A well-written book that is hard-going thematically at parts.

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Filed under Book Reviews, General Fiction, Mystery/Thriller, Tinted Edges

Unsettled Ground

Family drama novel about parents, poverty and isolation

Content warning: themes of control, parental death

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. This is actually the second book I have read by this author and I was looking forward to it.

Image is of the eBook cover of “Unsettled Ground” by Claire Fuller. The cover is a collection of colour flowers and fruit against a black background that on closer inspection appear to be wilting and rotting.

“Unsettled Ground” by Claire Fuller is a novel about twins Jeanie and Julius who unusually, at age 51, still live at home with their mother Dot in a small rural cottage in England. However when their mother suddenly dies, Dot’s carefully balanced, hand to mouth existence begins to crumble around them. The twins begin to realise just exactly how many secrets their mother was keeping from them, and how much she was keeping them from the rest of the world.

This is a disquieting novel that really resonated with me. When I was 18 years old, I lived in the West Midlands in the UK for about 6 months with relatives in a rural area, and Fuller really captured that village setting perfectly. Fuller unpacks in an incredibly realistic way have unnavigable society is for people who are disadvantaged, and examines in close detail the practicalities of life without access to a car, running water or electricity. I thought that Fuller handled writing about literacy difficulties especially well, and watching the recent TV documentary “Lost for Words” shortly afterwards helped me see just how accurately Fuller captured the stigma around lack of literacy but also the workarounds people develop to get by. The other thing I really liked about this book is the relentlessness of the life administration, even and especially in death, and how Dot doing everything for her children really left them unequipped to cope. Fuller pushes this scenario to its extreme, exploring each individual vulnerability to its limit while still remaining well within the realm of possibility.

While the setup for this book was extremely engaging, I’m not sure that in the end it landed. Fuller tiptoes around Dot’s character, and while I appreciate leaving some things to the imagination, there is never really much speculation about why she limited her children’s interaction with the outside world so much. Throughout the book, Jeanie and Julius learn more about their mother’s personal life through those closest to her, but never really why she had absolute control over the way the home was run and made absolutely no contingency plans whatsoever. Of course I accept that this happens all the time in real life, but in many ways Dot was the most interesting character in the book and we got only the faintest spectre. I also appreciate that people fall between the cracks, and it is hard to know what truly goes on in someone’s home. That being said, none of Dot’s friends seemed to think it was particularly strange that her two adult children in their 50s lived at home with her and had next to no life skills whatsoever.

Fuller proves again that she is a master of exploring the intricate and disturbing minutiae of an isolated life and if the ending is not full of drama, the journey certainly is.

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Wild Horses on the Salt

Romance novel about escaping domestic violence and finding a new life

Content warning: domestic violence

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author.

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“Wild Horses on the Salt” by Anne Montgomery is a romance novel about Becca, a lawyer fleeing her abusive husband. She finds herself on a property in Arizona, USA that belongs to an old friend of her aunt’s who uses it as a guest house. Physically and emotionally bruised, it takes Becca time to open up about what has happened to her. The more she learns about the beautiful country she has found herself in and the environmental issues that threaten it, including the contentious mustangs, the more she begins to feel at ease among her new friends. Especially the handsome Noah. However, her husband is not about to let her go so easily, and Becca soon finds the safety of her new life under threat.

This is an interesting novel that sensitively approaches the issue of domestic violence. Montgomery explores the factors that can leave someone vulnerable to controlling relationships as well as the stigma, financial control and physical danger that make it so difficult to leave. From the outside, Becca is an intelligent, beautiful and successful woman and I think that books like these carry the important message that domestic violence can happen to anyone. This is a well-researched book, and Montgomery brings the Arizona landscape to life through the lens of Becca’s rediscovered passion for art.

However, there were some points in the book where Montgomery’s enthusiasm for description slowed the plot down a bit. The parts of the book that follow the journey of an unlikely pair, a stallion and a sheep, were interesting but I felt that thematically they could have been connected better to the main story as either a well-timed plot device or a clearer metaphor for Becca’s own journey.

A good approach to the difficult topic of domestic violence.

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A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing

Novel about a child prodigy all grown up

Content warning: sexual themes

This book was released this year, and I had seen it mentioned a few times on social media, so when I came across it while scrolling for my next audiobook, I thought I would give this one a go.

A Lonely Girl Is a Dangerous Thing cover art

“A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing” by Jessie Tu and narrated by Aileen Huynh is a novel about a violinist called Jena who once was famous as a child prodigy. Now in her early 20s, her life in Sydney is consumed with rehearsals, auditions and hookups. As her ambition for music reignites, Jena is forced to confront what happened to make her career come crashing down in her late teens. For Jena, the violin is everything, but it is not enough to keep the deepest feelings of loneliness at bay. As her liaisons grow more and more complicated, Jena struggles to balance her dreams, her friendships and her lovers.

This is compelling book that attempts to answer a question I have certainly found myself wondering from time to time: what happens to child prodigies when they grow up? Through Jena, Tu explores the ways in which talent, work ethic and family support each influenced Jena’s success and downfall. Tu also examines how the lack of meaningful emotional connection as a child has impacted Jena’s relationships as an adult, resulting in messy, overlapping friendships and casual sex. Although Jena seems to yearn for close friendships, she also can’t seem to avoid self-destruction and choosing the gratification of feeling wanted in a fleeting sexual encounter over friends. However Tu challenges the reader to consider whether the standard by which we judge Jena’s behaviour would be equally applied to the men she sleeps with. Tu also explores the sexism in classical music: in the music written, the music selected and the people who gatekeep it.

I thought that the narrative decision of sending Jena to New York to confront her demons and the limitations of her talent was very clever, and it was this part of the book where Jena undergoes the most introspection about her past and the possibilities for her future. I also liked how Tu explores themes of race, countering stereotypes in a subversive way and subtly comparing Jena’s experience as Asian in Australia with her experience in New York. Despite her perfectionist approach to music, Jena’s personal life is largely an unmitigated disaster and she is often selfish and blunt, making a litany of poor decisions. Her ruthless ambition and frank descriptions of her sexual encounters are a far cry from the stereotype of Asian women as meek and unassuming. Huynh narrates the story with a flat, deadpan style that initially I found a little disconcerting but quickly warmed to. I felt that it actually captured Jena’s way of viewing the world well, and helped to translate Jena’s lack of emotional connection into the lived experience of loneliness.

I think that the part of the book that I found the hardest to reconcile was Jena’s affair with Mark, an older wealthy white man who is in a relationship with another woman. Tu leans uncomfortably into the cliche of seeking validation from sleeping with an unavailable man, and we have to watch Jena overlook Mark’s racist and sexist comments, and increasingly violent, dominating behaviour in bed. Conversely, a character that I really would have liked to have seen more of was an artist Jena meets called Val. There were a few points in the book where I thought that Tu might be hinting that Jena’s desire to be Val’s friend might translate into the intimacy she had been unable to find elsewhere, but unfortunately Val remained a relatively minor character.

There is plenty more I could go into, especially about motherhood, but I’ll wrap it up to say that this was a raw, challenging and fresh book that left me with plenty to think about.

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Filed under Audiobooks, Australian Books, Book Reviews, General Fiction

The Lebs

Literary realism about growing up Lebanese in Sydney

Content warning: sexual assault, racism

I first heard about this book when I saw the author speak on a special literary episode of Q+A. If you didn’t catch it, I would highly recommend watching it because there is some fantastic discussion about the Australian literary scene. The author in particular spoke so passionately and eloquently that his discussion really stuck with me, and I made a mental note to read his book. It popped up recently while I was searching for my next audiobook, and I was really excited to listen.

The Lebs cover art

“The Lebs” by Michael Mohammed Ahmad and narrated by Hazem Shammas is a bildungsroman about a teenager called Bani Adam who attends a Lebanese-majority high school in Western Sydney called Punchbowl Boys. Bani Adam is a dreamy boy whose thoughtful internal voice separates him from the hypermasculine culture that surrounds him. He has a deeply romantic crush on his English teacher, and after she leaves, he begins to channel his feelings into writing. When Bani Adam has a short story published, an opportunity arises for him to develop himself as a creative. However, outside Punchbowl Boys, Bani Adam grows to realise that the main thing that society sees in him is his ethnicity.

This is an incredibly insightful book that really captures the mood of Australia in the early 2000s. Bani Adam is an incredibly complex character, and I absolutely loved the dissonance between his articulate and sensitive inner voice, and how he presents to his friends and classmates. Shammas was a fantastic narrator, and the way he captured the voice of teenage boys, written with such honesty by Ahmad, was nothing short of brilliant. As someone who was in high school in Australia in the early 2000s, the cultural references, language and even occasionally behaviour were familiar to me. However, this book is about the singular experience of a Muslim-majority all-boys public school in Western Sydney, and it was eye opening to read about an experience in Australia happening parallel to my own. Ahmad captures how Lebanese identity, Islam and masculinity are so tightly woven together not only within the microcosm of Punchbowl Boys, but by Australian mainstream media against the backdrop of anti-Arabic sentiment in the wake of September 11 and the Sydney Gang Rapes. I thought that the way Ahmad handled the complexity and nuance of racial prejudice towards the Lebanese-Muslim community, and sexist and misogynistic attitudes within the Lebanese-Muslim community, was excellent. Bani Adam is the perfect protagonist for this book because while he is not comfortable with and doesn’t share the attitudes he hears from his peers, he learns that despite his inner self, he is still seen as just a “Leb” by the broader Australian community. Even though for some people the earlier parts of the book may be more confronting, I actually found the latter half of the book much more challenging when Bani Adam, seeking to improve himself artistically among peers, finds himself made to perform a caricature of the very community he is trying to distance himself from.

I just want to make a quick note about this book in audiobook format. As I mentioned, Shammas narrated this book excellently, but I also felt that this book really lent itself to being listened to. Ahmad revisits scenes several times, in the same way that teens (and adults) rehash events trying to examine them and make sense of them from different perspectives, using slightly different language and observations each time. I felt that this narrative style was actually really great in audiobook format for someone like me who can find active listening challenging at times, by reinforcing what is happening but challenging the reader to think about the same situation slightly differently. Interestingly, a significant way through the book, there was a content warning about discussion of sexual assault. I was surprised the producers decided to put this in just prior to the particular chapter rather than at the beginning of the entire book, so if you decide to listen, don’t worry, you haven’t accidentally skipped back to the beginning of the book.

A really important and thought-provoking book that I would thoroughly recommend. I found out after reading this book that it is actually a sequel to Ahmad’s book called “The Tribe” which I haven’t yet read, and now really want to.

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Filed under Audiobooks, Australian Books, Book Reviews, General Fiction

Little Fires Everywhere

Realistic novel about family, secrets and trust

I first heard about this novel when it won the 2017 Goodreads Choice Award for Best Fiction. Since then, it has been adapted into a TV miniseries that was released earlier this year. I’ve been really enjoying some of Reese Witherspoon’s work adapting books to film, so I picked up an edition of this book with a tie-in cover. After Marie Kondoing my bookshelf this year, and doing the #StartOnYourShelfathon challenge, I’ve been making a big effort to chip through my to-read shelf (yes, shelf!) and it was time to read this book.

A photo of the book cover on a background that is a cropped collage of scenic and touristy photos I took when I was in the USA in 2017

“Little Fires Everywhere” by Celeste Ng is a realistic novel about a real town called Shaker Heights. The story is about two families. The Richardsons are a well-to-do family with husband, wife and four children while the Warrens consist of a single mother and her daughter. When artist Mia Warren rents a small home from Mrs Elena Richardson, she promises her daughter Pearl that they will be able to stay there for good this time. Pearl quickly befriends Moody Richardson, then his siblings Trip and Lexie. Meanwhile, youngest daughter and black sheep Izzy begins to visit Mia and assist her with her work. As the family grows more and more intertwined, journalist Elena begins to grow suspicious of Mia’s past life and starts trying to investigate.

This is a strong novel that examines a small community and the forces that shake up its apparent idyllic existence. Ng is particularly concerned with motherhood, what makes a good mother and who deserves to be a mother. This book also examines class, race and profession and the ways in which these factors impact someone’s “suitability” as a mother. At the heart of the novel is a fascinating ideological controversy in its own right that in turn drives a wedge between Mia and Elena and kickstarts Elena’s skepticism about Mia’s background. This is a very readable novel, and I really enjoyed the earlier chapters as Pearl begins to navigate friendships with Moody, Trip and Lexie.

While this book is very readable, I did find myself a little disappointed at the ending. The opening pages of the book are very compelling and hint at a significant mystery to unfold. Without giving too much away, I felt that rather than the “spark” Ng hints at throughout the novel, the ending was an underwhelming fizzle without any of the twists or big reveals that I felt had been promised earlier on.

A well-written and insightful book that I wished had a bit less contemplation and a little more punch at the end.

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Dead Man Dreaming

Novel about coming to terms with a genetic illness

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the author.

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“Dead Man Dreaming” by Uday Mukerji is a novel about a man called David who is going through the final interviews for a prestigious position at a Canadian hospital as a heart surgeon. However, when the panel ask him a question about whether or not he has Huntington’s Disease, David is taken by surprise. Suddenly he is forced to confront the possibility that, like his father, he has Huntington’s Disease and impact it could have on his career, relationship and desire to have children. David’s drastic life changes as a result have him seeking and finding fulfilment in new places.

Mukerji is a clear, realistic writer with believable characters and premise. This is an interesting book that raises a number of pertinent ethical questions: is it reasonable to ask people about their genetic information during a job interview where hereditary conditions may impact performance? is it reasonable to encourage, or even require, people to undergo genetic testing prior to having children? These are questions that David himself ponders as he comes to terms with taking his own genetic test. Mukerji also asks the reader about openness in relationships, and the extent to which we need to make time to communicate with our partners and be honest with them.

The only thing that I found a bit challenging was that Mukerji relies heavily on David’s thoughts as a narrative device, and a not insignificant proportion of the book is David going over events and conversations again and again and mulling over his own worries. While this is probably a very accurate depiction of what it would be like for a real person in David’s situation, there were times where I felt the book needed a little more plot or conversation to help propel the story along.

A well-written story that explores issues arising from testing for hereditary conditions from a number of angles.

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Picture Perfect

Novel about love, family violence and belonging

Content warning: family violence

As I’ve mentioned previously, while everything is still under varying degrees of lockdown, I’ve had to find other suitable opportunities to listen to audiobooks that involve some kind of exercise. My solution: yard work. I’ve been trying to stick to shorter audiobooks to make it easier to pay attention, and this one came up when searching. Although this author is very popular and often a bit divisive, I have enjoyed a number of her books over the years, so I thought I would use an Audible credit on this book.

Picture Perfect cover art

“Picture Perfect” by Jodi Picoult and narrated by Megan Dodds is a novel about a woman who is found in a graveyard suffering from amnesia. She is taken to hospital by Will Flying Horse, who has moved to Los Angeles to work as a police officer. While Cassie recovers, pieces of her memory come back and she discovers that her real life is actually like something out of a fairytale. However, like most fairytales, there is a dark undercurrent and it will take all of Cassie’s strength to be her own hero.

Listening to this book, I was actually struck by how similar the story was to another book I read recently. Like “The Brave“, this story is about a woman who marries a movie star, who experiences domestic violence and who finds salvation in the arms of a biracial Native American man. Picoult’s novel was written 15 years earlier and I think hers is the better novel. Cassie is an anthropologist; educated, articulate and adventurous, she certainly doesn’t seem like the kind of person likely to be affected by family violence. However, the whole world falls for Alex Rivers’ charm and the acting skills he brings to the screen are just as effective at home. I felt like Picoult did a very convincing job of exploring the cyclic nature of family violence, and acknowledged that family violence does not discriminate and can happen in any type of family. Cassie is one of the three point of view characters, but unlike Nicholas Evans’ novel, it is her perspective that is put front and centre. I think I actually preferred this exploration of domestic violence to Liane Moriarty’s “Big Little Lies“.

I am no expert on Lakota culture, but the novel felt much better researched in this regard as compared with “The Brave”, and Will’s character seemed far more well-rounded than Evans’ character Cal. Instead of being little more than a literary device, Will experiences his own struggles with his biracial identity, racism in the police force and frustration with Cassie’s situation. The narration of this book was quite good, and Dodds has a drawling, contemplative voice that lends itself to many of the reminiscing chapters. Unusually, some of these chapters had a bit of music backing which helped distinguish between past and present.

This is one of Picoult’s earliest novels, and I think it is fair to say that her storytelling has improved considerably over the years. The plot of this book was a little meandering, and I think that in trying to fully explore each character’s background, character and motives, something of the tension in the novel was lost. I am so used to Picoult’s hard-hitting, fearless plot twists that I was quite surprised that this novel petered out on a rather positive note.

A thoughtful book that was ahead of its time in discussing family violence, but not quite as punchy as Picoult’s later books.

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Normal People

Irish novel about love, communication and trying to fit in

Content warning: mental health, domestic violence

Now that I have discovered that, for me, less is more when it comes to audiobooks, I was intrigued to see this one offered for free on Audible last month. I’d heard about it, and one of the cover designs is quite memorable with the people inside the anchovy tin, but I didn’t know much about it. It was a quite achievable 7.5 hours long, and, regrettably, was the last book I started before the gyms closed.

Normal People cover art

“Normal People” by Sally Rooney and narrated by Aoife McMahon is a novel about two teenagers, Marianne and Connell, who go to the same school in a small Irish town. Connell, though quiet, is popular at school while Marianne has no friends. Connell’s mother cleans Marianne’s mother, and although he and Marianne have never spoken at school, they begin to chat when he comes over to collect his mother after work. When they find themselves drawn together, they agree to keep things secret from everyone else at school. However, despite the magnetism between them, the secrecy makes their relationship uncertain. When they later cross paths at university, they click and become friends again, but changes in social standing and shortcomings in communication undermine the security they long to find in each other.

This was an absolutely stunning novel. I was absolutely hooked on every sentence. When the gyms had to close, I was desperate to find something active to do so I could keep listening and I ended up tackling the wilderness that had become our lawns. I found myself laughing aloud and my jaw actually dropping more times than I could count while listening to this book. Rooney has an absolute gift for exploring the tension, vulnerability and misunderstanding that can occur between two people. For a book that is ostensibly just about two people, there was not a dull moment. McMahon was a fantastic narrator and captured the tone of each character perfectly.

By getting to know each other more and more deeply over the years, Connell and Marianne slowly reveal their own secret struggles with mental illness and domestic violence to each other and become each other’s biggest support. However, Rooney is unmerciful in exploring how as humans we can fail one another, and how sometimes the only way to make amends is to grow as a person and succeed the next time. Rooney also provides some interesting commentary on class. She examines how class differences can complicate relationships, asking whether those complications are not insurmountable, and noting that wealth doesn’t guarantee happiness protect against abuse.

This book was just fantastic. I’ve already been recommending it to friends. Even more exciting, just weeks after I read it, I found out that a TV adaptation is coming out that started YESTERDAY. If you want to read something really good, this is really good.

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The Children Act

Legal drama about a life and death decision

I’ve only ever read one book by this author before, but he recently came across my radar after a minor controversy where he appeared to suggest that his new novel was unlike conventional science fiction and examined ethical dilemmas instead of focusing on “anti-gravity boots“. Anyway, I’d bought this book for my friend a long time ago because I thought it’d be relevant to her interests, so I asked her if I could borrow it back to read.

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“The Children Act” by Ian McEwan is a legal drama about Fiona, an English High Court judge, who specialises in family law. Although extremely successful in her work, congratulated by her peers for her well-written judgments about impossible ethical questions, Fiona’s personal life begins to fall apart when her husband announces his intention to have an affair. Unable to deal with this, Fiona throws herself headlong into a new case about a Jehovah’s Witness boy is refusing treatment for his leukemia. When the hospital makes an urgent application, Fiona decides to visit the boy in hospital to determine whether he is competent to make his own decision. However, as the judge, it is Fiona’s decision that matters the most and the way she makes it will change his life forever.

McEwan is compelling writer with a keen eye for human interest topics. This is a well-researched book and McEwan combines interesting case law with the realities of living a very privileged, but in some ways very lonely life. I thought the stand-out of this book was the character of Adam, a 17-year-old boy on the cusp of adulthood who is both dazzling in his potential and very, very young. McEwan captures his beauty and his folly extremely well.

I’ve been trying to put my finger on what it was I didn’t like about this book. I’ve looked at it from a few different angles, and ultimately I’ve had to conclude that it was Fiona’s characterisation. McEwan takes the stereotype of the working woman to its extreme with Fiona who had no children, has no time for her roving husband and whose only foray into any kind of wild abandon was a couple of trips to Newcastle with some cousins who are never named. Even though she is the main character, there’s an element of humanity, of realness missing from Fiona. I accept that McEwan is trying to shine a light on how cool legalistic arguments are not always suited to hot moral issues, but I refuse to accept that real people exist who are as banal as Fiona.

A well-written book but a shadow compared to my favourite fictional magistrate, Laura Gibson, who I cannot wait to see return to screen.

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