Review – ‘Portable Curiosities’ by Julie Koh

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It’s the end of the year and I’m running on empty, but I enjoyed Julie Koh’s collection of short stories, ‘Portable Curiosities’, released this year through UQP, so here’s a real short review because a) UQP is an awesome publisher and deserves all the coverage it can get, b) the book was good and c) look at the cover. Look at the COVER! Amazing .

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Review – ‘The Girls’ by Emma Cline

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I read this in one sitting, literally couldn’t put it down. This story of Evie, a teenager who joins a Manson-like cult in the summer of ’69, really drew me in with its incredible evocation of girlhood and adolescence in all its rawness. Interestingly, this story is less about the allure of Russell (the fictionalised Manson figure) and far more about ‘the girls’ that accrue about him. Evie is desperate to be noticed, to be loved, to be someone, and the girls – particularly their aloof quasi-leader, Suzanne – seem to Evie to offer her the sense of belonging and purpose she craves.
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Review – ‘Harriet Said’ by Beryl Bainbridge

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Bainbridge’s first novel written (it wasn’t her first published -it came out in 1972) is apparently loosely inspired by the Parker-Hulme murder case in New Zealand (which you may know from Heavenly Creatures, the Peter Jackson film) however the stories are only similar in so far as they both focus on young girls who intentionally set out to cause harm to an adult; in Harriet Said, though, the goal is not murder, but just really hardcore bullying and stalking. It’s weird and upsetting and sometimes violent.

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Review – ‘The Good People’ by Hannah Kent

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A lot of readers are going to love this book, I’m sure of it. Set in early 19th century Ireland, it follows a bunch of women in a rural and highly superstitious community who believe that a baby with a disability is a changeling (a dupe for the real baby, taken by the fairies). Obviously this is a really disturbing narrative, and it gets more and more disturbing as the women turn to the local folk-magic-witch to help ‘get the fairy out’ of the child. It’s dark and oftentimes violent, but Kent also fleshes out the backstories of the women and the entrenched nature of the superstitious beliefs in the community, which creates a weird and powerful dynamic where on one hand you are repulsed by the characters and on the other can sympathise with them (in the sense that you can see they don’t know any other way of living).
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Review: ‘This Beautiful Life’ by Helen Schulman

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Oh man, this was pretty hard to read – not because it’s badly written, but because of the subject matter. It’s basically the story of how people’s behaviour becomes ugly when the crap hits the fan – in this case a family/social crisis (teenage son receive sex video from a younger student; he forwards it on to his friends, who in turn forward it on; mayhem and shaming of various parties ensues).
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‘In the Quiet’ – Eliza Henry Jones

Jone_quietI enjoyed this book, a lot. Don’t let the premise put you off (mother of a family dies but somehow ‘remains’ out in the ether somewhere, able to narrate her family members’ lives and her own memories of them as she watches them grieve and heal over the ensuing years). Sounds terrible but actually worked pretty well – In the Quiet is less about negotiating the afterlife than it is detailing a family’s grief and death affects those still living.

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‘Whiskey & Charlie’ by Annabel Smith

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I heard about Annabel Smith a couple of years ago during an online book giveaway hosted by a group of writers from WA, where by subscribing to Smith’s blog (as well as the blogs of Natasha Lester, Dawn Barker, Amanda Curtin and Sara Foster), you could win a bunch of novels. I didn’t win, but I now read each of the blogs regularly and am making my way through the writers’ novels. Whiskey & Charlie (originally published in Australia as Whiskey Charlie Foxtrot) was Smith’s second novel, and I picked it up in the States instead of back home to support her international sales!

The story is basically a character study of Charlie, whose twin brother Whiskey is in a coma as a result of a bad car crash. Charlie and Whiskey have been estranged for years, so when Charlie is faced with the prospect of Whiskey’s potential death, he yearns to make amends with his bro. The story follows Charlie as deeply assesses why he and Whiskey became estranged in the first place, working out that his brother isn’t entirely to blame, then forgiving his bro and forgiving himself.

If the plot doesn’t sound action-driven, that’s because it really isn’t – Whiskey is unconscious for nearly the entire novel and most of the dramatic tension derives from Charlie’s inner emotional cycle – the grief, anger and guilt he experiences over and over as he mulls over his brother’s condition ad infinitum, to the point where it starts annoying his other relatives. But despite not being a novel one might read for plot, Smith has written an interesting and very moving story, primarily, I think, because she does such a great job at making the audience care for both Charlie and Whiskey. They’re both utterly infuriating, in their own ways; Whiskey for his arrogance and sense of entitlement, Charlie for his inability to recognise his own flaws, his tendency to blame Whiskey for every mishap that befalls him. But they’re also both likeable and endearing. It’s complicated. It’s good.

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