Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, crime/thriller, Dervla McTiernan, Fiction, Focus on WA writers, Harper Collins, Ireland, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR 21

‘The Rúin’ by Dervla McTiernan

Fiction – paperback; Harper Collins; 380 pages; 2018.

Dervla McTiernan’s The Rúin is an excellent police procedural set in Galway, Ireland. This is the first in the DI Cormac Reilly series, which continues with The Scholar (published in 2019) and The Good Turn (2020).

Dead from a drug overdose

In this debut, it’s 1993 and rookie Garda Cormac Reilly is called out to a decrepit Georgian manor house where Hilaria Blake, a known alcoholic, lies dead in her bed from a heroin overdose. Her two children, 15-year-old Maude and 5-year-old Jack, show signs of neglect. The boy, in particular, is covered in unexplained bruises. There’s not much Reilly can do, except take the children to the hospital and let social services take over.

Fast forward 20 years and Reilly has left his high-flying career as a detective in Dublin and is about to take up a new post in Galway so that he can be with his partner, Emma, a successful academic.

But easing into a new police station isn’t straightforward. Someone is spreading nasty rumours about him and he’s not sure who to trust.

Complications arise when the Blake death and those two neglected children return to haunt him. Jack, now an adult, has been found dead in the River Corrib. The police claim it’s suicide, but Jack’s girlfriend, a promising young surgeon, begs to differ. Yes, the pair had argued over an unwanted pregnancy, but Aisling doesn’t believe that would be enough for Jack to want to deliberately drown himself.

When Maude returns to Ireland after having lived on a remote sheep station in Western Australia for most of her adult life, there is pressure on Reilly to interrogate her over the death of both her mother and her brother. There’s a hidden agenda going on and trying to unravel it is the nub of this complex but compelling novel, which is written with great sensitivity and humanity.

Dual narrative

The narrative, which switches between Aisling and Cormac’s point of view, moves things along at a clip and gives the reader a well rounded view of events, both past and present.

And while the characters in The Rúin are all flawed and deeply human, the two leads are “good eggs” who you want to cheer on. However, things do stray into caricature towards the end when the culprit is revealed and his behaviour escalates into over-the-top shenanigans.

And while I guessed the “solution” pretty early on, this is a well-plotted, deftly written police procedural about family secrets, police corruption, child abuse and how the past and present can collide in disturbing ways.

The Rúin has won numerous awards, including the 2019 Ned Kelly Award for Best First Novel, the 2019 Davitt Award and the 2019 Barry Award for Best Original Paperback, and been shortlisted for the Australian Book Industry Awards, the Irish Book Awards and the Kate O’Brien Award.

Cathy at 746 Books also enjoyed this one.

This is my 9th book for #AWW2021 and my 9th for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I purchased it last year. I’m not sure I’m going to succeed unless I read a LOT over the next 6 weeks.

And because the author lives in Perth (where she emigrated with her family after the Global Financial Crash), this book also qualifies for my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. You can find out more about this ongoing reading project here and see what books I’ve reviewed from this part of the world on my Focus on Western Australian page.

Australia, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Gabriel Bergmoser, Harper Collins, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, Southern Cross Crime Month 2021, TBR 21

‘The Hunted’ by Gabriel Bergmoser

Fiction – paperback; Harper Collins; 284 pages; 2020.

Terrifying. Horrifying. Disturbing. All these words spring to mind when trying to sum up Gabriel Bergmoser’s high-octane suspense novel The Hunted.

Set somewhere in the Australian outback (there are no place names in this book), it’s a scary mix of Wolf Creek meets Wake in Fright with a dash of Fear is the Rider and The Dead Heart thrown in for good measure.

I raced through it with my heart in my throat one moment and feeling like I was going to gag the next. Yes, it’s an incredibly visceral read and not always pleasant because it features some pretty gruesome scenes. You have been warned.

In the UK, the book is published by Faber & Faber

Service station standoff

The story focuses on Frank, a service station owner, who runs his business single-handedly on a little-used highway in the middle of nowhere.

His teenage granddaughter, Allie, whom he barely knows, is staying with him for a few weeks. Allie has been having problems at school, so her parents figured taking her out of her normal city environment might help “fix her attitude”. Yet the pair rarely see each other because Frank spends long hours at the servo and Allie sleeps late.

But one morning their quiet existence is shattered when a car pulls into the service station and a badly injured, blood-soaked woman falls out. She’s being pursued by a mob who seemingly want to kill her — and they’ve done a pretty good job of nearly doing that so far.

What happens next is an adrenaline-fuelled high stakes drama involving Frank, Allie and a group of customers who band together to protect the almost-dying woman from further danger, while they themselves get caught up in a terrifying standoff that occurs on Frank’s property involving crazed men, guns and explosions.

Woman on the run

To escalate the tension even further in this super-fast-paced novel, the author includes a second narrative thread, which goes back in time to tell the story of Maggie, the badly injured woman.

In chapters headed “Then”, which alternate with others headed “Now”, we learn how Maggie hooks up with a fellow backpacker on the road to experience the “real” Australia, only to land in an isolated country town where everything is not what it seems.

What Maggie discovers in that town triggers a massive road chase in which she becomes “the hunted” of the title. I can’t really reveal more than that for fear of ruining the plot, but let’s just say it’s pretty grim…

Too much violence

As much as I enjoyed the page-turning suspense of this novel (I ate it up in a day unable to tear my eyes away), I had issues with some of the violence in The Hunted, because it often felt gratuitous. On more than one occasion, I felt nauseous reading visceral descriptions of what happens to human bodies when they’re beaten or shot at.

Making one of the lead characters female doesn’t alleviate the misogyny in this book either. I felt sickened by the men in this novel and the ways in which they got off on doing horrible things to women.

Yes, I know it’s fiction and I know it’s supposed to be a thrilling horror story, but I question the author’s motivations: what is the point of the violence and the misogyny? If it was written in the 1970s or 1980s it might be understandable, but this is the 21st century  — surely our attitudes have moved on and we don’t need to be titillated by this kind of content?

According to the book’s publishers, a film adaptation of The Hunted is currently being developed in a joint production between two US companies. It certainly has all those qualities that mainstream Hollywood loves: car chases, guns, explosions — and death. I don’t think I could bare to watch it…

About the author¹: Gabriel Bergmoser is an award-winning Melbourne-based author and playwright. He won the prestigious Sir Peter Ustinov Television Scriptwriting Award in 2015, was nominated for the 2017 Kenneth Branagh Award for New Drama Writing and went on to win several awards at the 2017 VDL One Act Play Festival circuit. In 2016, his first young adult novel, Boone Shepard, was shortlisted for the Readings Young Adult Prize. (1. Source: Harper Collins Australia website.)

Where to buy: Widely available in most territories.

This is my 4th book for #SouthernCrossCrime2021 which I am hosting on this blog between 1st March and 31st March. To find out more, including how to take part and to record what you have read, please click here.

It is also my 6th for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021.

Australia, Author, Book review, Christian White, crime/thriller, Fiction, Harper Collins, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘The Nowhere Child’ by Christian White

Fiction – Kindle edition; Harper Collins; 400 pages; 2019. Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley.

Christian White’s The Nowhere Child is the latest in that new wave of Australian crime writing that is attracting an international audience. Like Jane Harper’s The Dry, it, too, has won a Victorian Premier Literary Award and, fresh on the heels of its Australian publication success, will be published in the UK next month.

But there’s an important difference here: this book, to me, does not feel particularly Australian. Only a fraction of it is set Down Under (in suburban Melbourne); the bulk of it is set in Kentucky, USA. For that reason The Nowhere Child feels too generic to be classified as “Southern Cross Crime”, though I’m sure that won’t stop the publishers from marketing it as such.

That said, it’s a fast-paced read (as you would expect for a psychological thriller) and has an intriguing premise: Kim Leamy, a young Australian photographer, is approached by a man, who claims she’s really Sammy Went, a toddler abducted from the USA 20 years earlier.

This news, greeted at first with disdain and disbelief, turns Kim’s life upside down. If she’s really Sammy Went, how did she get to Australia? Was her late mother responsible? Has her entire life been based on a lie?

A narrative that juxtaposes past and present

To flesh out how Sammy went missing, along with the long-term repercussions of that event and the family secrets that lead up to it, the novel is split into three narrative threads — Melbourne, now; Kentucky, now; and Kentucky, then — which are told in alternate chapters. This builds up the suspense element of the story and lends it a page-turning quality.

The characterisation is good, particularly Kim, whose confusion and distress seems to resonate off the page, but the American cast — the closet homosexual, the alcoholic “white trash” woman living in a trailer, the pious leader of a kooky religious sect et al — felt slightly clichéd to me.

Like Phoebe Locke’s The Tall Man (which I reviewed yesterday), The Nowhere Child is right out of the Stephen King playbook as well. (There are even minor references to “a tall man made entirely of shadows” that Kim dreams about!) That’s not to say the book is bad; it’s simply not particularly original.

Its expertly paced, deftly plotted and has a (rare for the genre) satisfying conclusion. An entertaining story, The Nowhere Child is sure to be lapped up by millions of readers across the world. It will be published in the UK on 21 March, but can be downloaded on Kindle now.

Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2018, Book review, Harper Collins, Hazel Baron, Janet Fife-Yeomans, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, true crime

‘My Mother, A Serial Killer’ by Hazel Baron and Janet Fife-Yeomans

My Mother, A Serial Killer

Non-fiction – Kindle edition; Harper Collins; 228 pages; 2018.

Hazel Baron was nine when she first suspected her mother was a murderer.

So begins My Mother, A Serial Killer, by Hazel Baron and Janet Fife-Yeomans, which tells the real life story of an Australian woman who murdered her husband in the 1950s, then killed two other men she knew. She only came to justice after her eldest daughter, Hazel Baron, turned her into police.

Dulcie Bodsworth was a community-minded wife and mother, who was well respected as a talented cook and caterer. But underneath her likeable exterior lurked a manipulative and conniving individual.

In 1950, when her second husband, Ted, a former railway ganger now crippled by rheumatoid arthritis, was holed up in hospital in rural Victoria, Dulcie took up with Harry, a man 19 years her junior “to help with the kids” (there were four children, including Hazel, the co-writer of this book). Circumstances were dire (this was before the welfare state) and the family were living in two old army tents on the NSW side of the Murray River, opposite the town of Mildura.

On the night that Ted was discharged from hospital, Dulcie put the kids to bed with warm milk (a rare, and memorable, treat) and Aspro tablets, to help them go to sleep after such an exciting day.

Hazel’s mum shook her awake the next morning. The flap to the tent was ajar, the shaft of light showing that her dad’s bed was empty. Dulcie was bending over her, her face all teary: ‘Hazel, Hazel. Your father’s gone. He wasn’t here when I woke up. I think he fell in the river and drowned last night.’
[…] On the banks of the river, Ted’s faithful dog, Toby, howled into the morning air.

A few days later Ted’s body was found upstream. An inquest recorded a verdict of accidental death.

But Hazel wasn’t so sure. Why had her mother taken her and her siblings out of school immediately after her father’s disappearance? Why were they not allowed to talk to the police? Why had Dulcie told the police that Harry was Ted’s brother but then later claimed he was her brother? And what were Dulcie and Harry arguing about all the time? When she heard them talking about “getting our story right”, what did they mean?

On the run

In the years that followed, Dulcie and Harry dragged their young family from one town to another, mainly in a bid to avoid Ted’s relatives.

By 1955, they were living on a sheep station, outside Wilcannia in north-western NSW, where Dulcie took a job as housekeeper. Her second victim was the manager of that station, Sam Overton, whom she killed by putting arsenic on his lamb chops.

She wanted him out of the way in the mistaken belief that Harry would then be able to take over the farm. His death was attributed to natural causes — acute gastroenteritis and inflammation of the middle layer of the heart wall.

Her third victim was Tommy Tegenza, the town drunk, whom Dulcie had befriended. At the time Dulcie had the lease to operate the dining room in one of the three hotels in Wilcannia.

She knew Tommy had £600 and managed to convince him to leave it to her in his will. She staged an accidental fire in his room — a shed out the back of the hotel — and he was burned alive. In a weird twist of fate, the money from his will did not go to Dulcie, but helped cover his enormous bar bill.

Brought to justice

As well as looking at Dulcie’s complicated, shambolic and often impoverished life — from her first marriage to her third — and examining in great detail how she went about killing three men who simply got in her way, My Mother, A Serial Killer also charts how she was brought to justice.

Hazel, who got married against her mother’s wishes and became a nurse, had been suspicious of Dulcie ever since her father’s death. When she finally went to police (because she was frightened that her mother had turned her malicious and deadly attention toward’s Hazel’s own husband), her whole life got turned upside down. She had to go into hiding.

The investigation was not straight forward. But eventually this mundane-looking middle-aged mother was charged with three murders and sent to prison. She served thirteen and a half years and later became a consultant on the TV series Prisoner (or Cell Block H, as it was known in the UK). One of the characters, Lizzie Birdsworth, is based on Dulcie.

My Mother, A Serial Killer is a heart-rending account of a daughter’s anguish, but it’s also a tribute to her courage, tenacity and honesty — all written in a forthright style, with only the bare minimum of tabloid flourishes. It’s one of those amazing stories that seems too outlandish to be true. I found it completely fascinating.

You can read an abstract of his book on the News.com.au website and listen to Janet Fife-Yeoman’s talk about the book on the Nightlife podcast. It is available in the UK in Kindle edition only.

This is my 9th book for #AWW2018

Author, Book review, Fiction, Gail Honeyman, general, Harper Collins, literary fiction, Publisher, Scotland, Setting

‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine’ by Gail Honeyman

Fiction – Kindle edition; Harper Collins; 400 pages; 2017. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I do not light up a room when I walk into it. No one longs to see me or to hear my voice. I do not feel sorry for myself, not in the least. These are simply statements of fact.

Meet Eleanor Oliphant, a 30-year-old single woman, who lives in Glasgow and works as a finance administrator in a design firm. She has no family and no friends. Her life is guided by routine: lunchtimes doing the crossword puzzle in The Telegraph, evenings in front of the TV, and weekends spent at home consuming two bottles of cheap vodka.

Then there’s the regular Wednesday night phone call with “mummy”, who is locked up in an unspecified facility (read jail) and badgers her daughter about her “special project”. That special project, it turns out, is Eleanor’s plan to woo a man she’s been admiring from afar: a rock singer she thinks is “the one”.

But when that project goes off the rails, Eleanor’s fragile grip on life (and reality) threatens to derail more than just her one-sided romance.

Comic novel with tragic undertones

This astutely written debut novel by Gail Honeyman is quirky and humorous and deeply affecting. It goes into some very dark places, but emerges with a strong feeling of hope and optimism for the future.

Its central character, the eponymous Eleanor Oliphant, is an oddball: she lacks self-awareness, finds it difficult to make friends, is socially awkward and yet she’s never afraid to do her own thing.

Her contrary, judgemental voice gives the novel a distinctive flavour, peppered as it is with archaic language and outrageous comments — a red-faced man, for instance, is said to have “the pasty look of someone who has never eaten an apple”;  a woman’s makeup is described as being as subtle as if it had “been intended for a stage performance in the Royal Albert Hall”; and her friend is said to be wearing “the kind of hat that a German goblin might wear in an illustration from a nineteenth-century fairy tale, possibly one about a baker who was unkind to children and got his comeuppance via an elfin horde. I rather liked it.”

Black comedy is never far away:

The last party I’d been to – apart from that appalling wedding reception – was on Judy Jackson’s thirteenth birthday. It had involved ice skating and milkshakes, and hadn’t ended well. Surely no one was likely to vomit or lose a finger at an elderly invalid’s welcome home celebration?

But balancing out the snide laughs and the eyeball rolls is a sense of pathos and empathy, as the author oh-so casually and ever so slowly offers a steady drip feed of information that forces the reader to constantly reassess their opinion of this opinionated narrator.

We know that Eleanor struggles to fit in, but when we discover early on in the book that she has a badly scarred face, there’s a sudden “a-ha” moment. Other hints about a dark past and the ongoing strained relationship with her mother, makes the reader want to know more: how did Eleanor’s injuries occur? Why does she have to see a social worker? Why is her mother locked up? Why does she feel the need to dampen down her feelings with so much vodka?

All these questions combined with exemplary narrative pacing makes Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine a proper page turner. Forgive the capitals – and the book reviewers’ horrible cliché — but I COULD NOT PUT IT DOWN.

Thoughtful and kind-hearted story

As you will undoubtedly know if you’ve read my blog for any length of time, I usually run the other way when the bandwagons come along, but this book really is as good as the hype. It might be slightly too long, and Eleanor’s voice takes a while to warm to, but once you’re in the throes of the story it’s hard to resist its charms. I predicted most of the plot turns, but it’s such a genuinely thoughtful, kind-hearted and touching novel I didn’t really mind.

I loved its perceptive examination of loneliness, the human need for companionship and the ways in which the past can continue to haunt the present and the future. But overall I loved the message that you cannot live your life by a timetable: change, spontaneity and daring to try new things are much more important.

Finally, I must also mention that this book gets extra kudos for the simple fact that it name-checks (and pokes the fun out of) a magazine I once worked on. Notting Hill (the film), eat your heart out:

‘I don’t see her as a Take a Break reader, somehow. It’d be something much weirder, much more random. Angling Times? What Caravan?’ ‘Horse and Hound,’ said Billy firmly, ‘and she’s got a subscription.’ They all sniggered. I laughed myself at that one, actually.

Author, Book review, Canada, Fiction, Frances Itani, Harper Collins, historical fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Tell’ by Frances Itani

Tell

Fiction – hardcover; Harper Collins; 321 pages; 2014.

The aftermath of the Great War on the residents of a small village in Canada is the subject of France’s Itani’s latest novel, Tell, which has been shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize.

I read it back-to-back with William Trevor’s Love and Summer, and couldn’t help but see the similarities between them. Both are gentle, comforting, slow-paced reads, about people quietly getting on with their lives in a small, close-knit community.  Indeed, in KevinfromCanada’s review of Tell, he suggests the book is a Canadian version of the Irish village novel in which  “a collection of ordinary people try to deal with life, even if they have been touched by extraordinary events like war”.

Perhaps the only major difference — aside from setting and era — is that Itani’s book has a slightly more complicated structure, because it interleaves two main narrative threads instead of focusing on  just a single story.

Small-town life

Tell spans just a couple of months — November 1919 to January 1920 — and is set in Deseronto, a small town in Ontario on the edge of a bay.

Here, we meet Kenan, a young shell-shocked soldier, who has returned from the war badly injured. He has a dead arm, has lost the sight in one eye and his face is terribly disfigured. He is too traumatised to leave the house, despite this wife, Tress, offering as much support and comfort as she can muster. The book follows their individual struggles to keep their marriage alive despite the fact that the war has changed both of them — physically and psychologically — forever.

The  second storyline focuses on Kenan’s aunt and uncle, who also live in the village. Am and Maggie have been married for a long time, but their relationship has “stalled” in the sense that they barely have a thing to say to one another. Am seeks solace in his work maintaining the village clock tower and keeping his nephew company, while Maggie spends time with her new friends — an outgoing woman called Zel, and an Eastern European refugee called Luc — both of whom she met through the village choir. It is her relationship with choir master Luc, in particular, which threatens to destroy the fragile state of her marriage.

Family connections

While these two storylines are distinct, they are not separate. Itani fleshes out the relationships and links between the two couples to create a sense of family and shared history, almost as if they represent a microcosm of the village itself.

Not much happens plot wise except to move towards the choir’s annual New Year’s Eve concert, although even that is not the real climax of the novel, which ends with a revelation about a secret long-held by Am and Maggie. But the novel works in terms of the well-drawn characters, for it is their quiet conversations, their actions, the roles they play in village life and their interactions with each other that gives the reader a reason to keep turning the pages.

Sometimes, however, I felt the music element of the novel — the choir’s rehearsals and the performance itself — were slightly overworked, although I did enjoy the way in which Maggie’s rediscovery of her love for music helped her reconnect with emotions she had buried long ago. Her chance encounter with opera singer Dame Nellie Melba in Toronto before the war is beautifully drawn, if not quite believable.

I also struggled with the revelations at the end. While heartbreaking, they bordered on a sentimentality that seemed at odds with the rest of the novel. But these are minor quibbles.

Tell is a lovely, quietly devastating book that focuses on small moments but never loses sight of the bigger picture: that we must all take responsibility for our actions; that life, despite its many challenges, heartaches and sorrows, is what we make of it; and that failing to deal with the past can sometimes come back to haunt us in unforeseen and tragic ways.

I read this book as part of the Shadow Giller Prize. It is currently only available in Canada but will be published in the UK on 6 January, 2015.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Harper Collins, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, UK

‘The Shock of the Fall’ by Nathan Filer

Shock of the fall

Fiction – Kindle edition; Harper Collins; 321 pages; 2014.

Nathan Filer’s The Shock of the Fall — which won the 2013 Costa Book of the Year, announced in January — charts one boy’s descent into madness. But this is not a sensationalised account of mental illness — it’s a highly nuanced and very readable book, worthy of the praise that has been heaped upon it.

The story is told by 19-year-old Matthew in a chatty, personable voice, often directly aimed at the reader — “I don’t know if you watch Eastenders, or even if you do, I don’t suppose you’ll remember an episode from so long ago” — which makes for quite an intimate, occasionally claustrophobic, experience.

This intimacy is further encouraged by the way in which the book is printed: different fonts are used to  show when Matt is typing his story on a typewriter or a computer, and it includes letters, both real and fake, from doctors and caseworkers, along with small illustrations, or doodles.

Tragic incident

While Matt never names his illness, we know that it has necessitated a stay in a psychiatric ward and is currently managed by weekly injections (because he’s inclined not to take his pills). We also know that it can be traced back to a tragic incident in his childhood: the death of his older brother, Simon, while the family were on holiday in Dorset, and for which Matt blames himself.

This blame seems to manifest itself in anger, which Matt struggles to contain — when he’s 10 he stabs a classmate with a compass; as a teenager his angry outbursts frighten his parents, his nanna and the nurses — so that a nasty undercurrent of violence seems to simmer below the surface at all times.

It doesn’t help that his mother appears to have problems of her own. In the immediate aftermath of Simon’s death, she fusses over Matt to such an extent that one wonders if she has Munchausen by proxy syndrome. But his grandmother, “Nanny Noo”, is a real tower of strength. She treats him kindly at all times and respects his desire for independence. When he moves out of home aged 17 to live with his school friend and takes up a low-paid job as a care worker, she offers him endless moral (and occasionally financial) support. Their relationship is beautifully told.

A story about mental illness

The novel’s greatest strength lies in its depiction of mental illness. It’s very well done, but this is probably no surprise given the author is a qualified mental health nurse and worked for the mental health service in Bristol for many years. There’s a lightness of touch so you never feel as if you’re reading a book about “issues”, and the ways in which the narrator intersects with medical staff and caseworkers feels incredibly authentic.

At times, Matt’s descent into madness reminded me very much of MJ Hyland’s Carry Me Down (though far less dark) and Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy (though far less violent), with a tinge of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time thrown in for good measure. Given that these are three of my favourite novels, this is high praise indeed.

Admittedly,  I wasn’t sure I liked the voice to begin with, because it felt a bit “dumbed down”, but I soon got used to it.  And the ending, which is redemptive and emotional, was a little too twee for my tastes.

It also feels as if the book is aimed at a young adult audience, and I suspect it would particularly appeal to teenage readers or those adults who don’t read very much and want something easy to sink their teeth into. That’s not to damn it with faint praise: The Shock of the Fall is a highly readable book that deserves a wide audience because it deals with uncomfortable, often ignored, subjects in an intelligent, well-informed and gently perceptive way.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Harper Collins, Lionel Shriver, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘Big Brother’ by Lionel Shriver

Big-Brother

Fiction – hardcover; Harper Collins; 384 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

In Lionel Shriver’s last novel, So Much For That, she poked a big fat stick at the American healthcare system and highlighted all the things that were wrong with it. In her latest book, Big Brother, she picks up another stick, but this time she pokes it at the American diet to show how obesity — and an unhealthy obsession with food — can ruin lives.

Big, fat brother

The story is narrated by forty-something Pandora, a successful entrepreneur, who is married with two step-children. When she goes to the airport to collect Edison, her brother, a famous jazz musician whom she has not seen for more than four years, she does not recognise him because he’s packed on so much weight.

During his visit it becomes increasingly clear that Edison has a real problem with food — but no one is prepared to tackle him about the subject, not even Pandora’s health-obsessed, cycling-freak of a husband, Fletcher, who can’t stand watching the man stuff his face with food at every opportunity.

Eventually, things come to a head as Edison outstays his welcome and breaks a precious piece of furniture — by sitting on it. That’s when Pandora puts her own marriage on the line by offering to help her big — in all senses of the word — brother lose weight by setting him up in his own cottage nearby, living with him and managing his food and fitness regime 24/7 as a kind of personal trainer cum food Nazi. But the question is: can he shift all 223 pounds in a year?

Issues-based novel

Unsurprisingly for a Lionel Shriver novel, Big Brother is an issues-based story. Not only does it highlight the health problems — diabetes, stroke, fluid retention and so on — associated with obesity, but it explores the social and psychological problems arising from being seriously overweight — and it does so in an intelligent, thought-provoking and informed way.

And while the characters are wonderfully realised — Edison is painfully egotistical, Pandora is convincingly torn between her brother and her own family, Fletcher is annoying in a morally smug “I only eat brown rice and broccoli” kind of way — there’s not much light relief (sorry, another pun) in this book. I found myself becoming weighed (oops) down by the unrelenting nature of it all. But perhaps that’s a strength too, because Shriver explores the issue from all possible angles, providing plenty of food for thought (oops, I did it again).

At its most basic level, Big Brother is a story about sibling love — and rivalry — told in Shriver’s typically searing take-no-prisoners style. It’s filled with tension, brims with anger and packs a powerful punch — although the twist at the end makes it feel less like a punch and more like a raspberry being blown in your face. Still, if you’re looking for something meaty to get your teeth into… I’ll stop now, shall I?

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Harper Collins, Lisa Brackman, Mexico, Publisher, Setting

‘The Day of the Dead’ by Lisa Brackman

Day-of-the-dead

Fiction – paperback; Harper; 376 pages; 2012. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I’m not sure what made me keep this book when it arrived unsolicited months and months ago, but it survived two or three book culls and I took it away with me on holiday thinking it would make the perfect read for a wintry day. I was right. Lisa Brackman’s Day of the Dead — published in the US under the title Getaway — is nothing special in terms of psychological thrillers, but it’s fast-paced and (slightly) more intelligent than your average “airport novel”.

The holiday from hell

The story is not a particularly original one — woman alone on holiday has one-night stand with dangerous man and then gets herself into all kinds of bother — but who cares when you are looking for some instant gratification of the easy reading variety?

In Day of the Dead, the main protagonist is Michelle Mason, a feisty if somewhat naive young widow from Los Angeles. On holiday in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, she is trying to come to terms with the loss of her husband and the subsequent loss of all their assets — it turns out rich hubby got caught up in the global financial crisis but didn’t let his wife know. He continued to fund their luxurious lifestyle — which he couldn’t afford — and now Michelle has been lumbered with all his debts.

But that turns out to be the least of her concerns, because when she meets Daniel, a handsome expat American (aren’t they always handsome in these kinds of novels?), and takes him back to her hotel room, she unwittingly gets caught up in events that are beyond her control. By page 16, it’s clear that the dream holiday is about to turn into a nightmare.

A Faustian pact

It’s a bit tricky to explain much else without spoiling the plot. But essentially Michelle is trapped in Vellarto, thanks to a missing passport and lack of cash, and doesn’t know whom she can trust. Even the police are suspect.

When a shady man called Gary asks her to spy on Daniel in exchange for her personal debts being paid off, Michelle baulks at the idea — but then she realises she has no alternative: Gary will kill her if she refuses to play his “game”.

Once Michelle agrees to this Faustian pact, the narrative goes through all kinds of twists and turns, so that you’re never sure what is around the corner for our poor heroine caught in the dangerous world of drug runners and corrupt police officers. While the ride is wild, to Brackman’s credit, the plot developments and the life-or-death situations in which Michelle finds herself don’t feel too far-fetched. Even the characters, of which there’s a small but defined cast, seem considerably fleshed out for a novel of this type. And despite the simple prose style, it’s very visual — it would make a terrific Hollywood blockbuster.

Day of the Dead won the Grand Prize for general fiction at the Los Angeles Book Festival in March 2012. It may not be highbrow literature, but it’s entertaining, smart and fast. The point is to just go with the flow and enjoy the journey.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Harper Collins, Lionel Shriver, literary fiction, New York, Publisher, Setting

‘So Much For That’ by Lionel Shriver

SoMuchForThat

Fiction – hardcover; Harper Collins; 464 pages; 2010. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Author Lionel Shriver never shies away from exploring big moral questions in her writing. In her Orange Prize-winning novel We Need to Talk About Kevin (2003) she examined the nature versus nurture debate and posed one of the most alarming questions it is possible to pose: should a mother be blamed if her son murders his fellow classmates?

In The Post-Birthday World (2007) she looked at domestic security versus a life of adventure, and asked whether it was possible to lead a happier life by choosing passion over love.

In So Much For That, her latest novel due for UK release next week, she asks the biggest question of them all: how much money is one life worth? If you had the chance to lead a different, more fulfilling, life, even if it meant you wouldn’t earn much money, would you take it? Or, to put it more bluntly, if you were to get sick, how much would you be prepared to pay for medical treatment, even if you weren’t quite sure the medical treatment would work?

The story begins with Shepherd Knacker, a hardworking family man, announcing that he has an adventure in store for Glynis, his wife of 26 years, and Zach, his 16-year-old son. With almost a million dollars in his bank account (created by selling his handyman business and his house several years earlier), he’s just bought them all one-way air tickets to a tropical island off the coast of Africa. Here, free from the trappings of modern day America, the family will live in relative comfort — and obscurity — for the rest of their lives.

But sadly, this life-long dream cannot be fulfilled. Glynis has an announcement of her own: she has an extremely rare and aggressive form of cancer.

The book, which is set largely in New York in 2005, follows the ups and downs of Glynis’ treatment and the ensuing outfall amongst family and friends, while Shep’s million dollar bank account shrinks to the point of no return. But Shriver is clever, and weaves two other stories, which also explore the moral question of a life’s worth, into the narrative — and to hammer the point home even more heavily, she has the Terry Schiavo case, in which lawyers argue whether Ms Schiavo, who lies in a persistent vegetative state, should be disconnected from her life support system, playing out in the background.

The first strand involves Shep’s best friend, Jackson, a man who rails against big government and spends most of his time ranting and raving about all the taxes he has to pay. Happily married to Carol, he has two children: Flicka, a feisty intelligent teenager, who was born with a rare genetic disorder (familial dysautonomia) which requires constant medical attention, and a younger daughter, Heather, who is put on a sugar-based placebo in order to “not feel left out”. As if his coping with his daughter’s illness is not enough, midway through the story, Jackson himself, falls prey to a botched operation for which he must pay in more ways than one.

The second strand involves the care of Shep’s elderly father, who is no longer able to look after himself. Despite the fact he’s lead a productive life, paid his taxes and owns his own home, the government won’t foot the bill for his assisted care. It is up to Shep to fund the shortfall. Given he’s also paying for his wife’s cancer treatment, his cash-strapped sister’s fuel bills and his adult daughter’s rent, is it any wonder he’s hurtling towards bankruptcy?

This might all sound like depressing stuff. And you’d be forgiven for thinking the book is just a thinly veiled excuse for Shriver to have a pop at the American medical and taxation system. But to interpret So Much For That as mere polemic is to miss the point. Yes, there are times when the dialogue reads like political venting, but there’s a bigger picture to focus on here (it’s important to note that the novel is set before the credit crunch, Obama’s presidency and his current health care bill reforms).

Just as Helen Garner’s Spare Room looked at the impact of cancer on a friendship, So Much For That looks at cancer’s impact on a marriage. And it examines how the trappings of modern life, with its heavy emphasis on consumerism and property ownership, counts for almost nothing when your health — and your life — is at stake.

I can’t exaggerate how much I enjoyed this book. I lived with these characters for an entire weekend (the book arrived on a Saturday morning and by the Sunday night I had finished it) and felt like I’d gone on a huge, emotional roller-coaster that lasted almost 48 hours. It made me laugh, it made me cry and it made me angry.

None of the characters are particularly likable: Glynis is spiky, bad-tempered and infuriatingly bad-mannered throughout; Jackson rants too much; Flicka is irritatingly obnoxious; and Shep, while sympathetically drawn, lets everyone treat him life a doormat and never calls anyone on their shit. But my god, they feel like real flesh-and-blood people, the kind who you probably work with or live next door to. Yes, they make mistakes, yes, they make morally dubious decisions, and yes, they fail to take responsibility for much of their actions. But I enjoyed being in their company and was sad when it all came to an end. Mind you, the book’s got a terrific conclusion that poses an entirely new set of moral questions. But I guess it wouldn’t be a Shriver novel without being fierce and intelligent, and fiercely intelligent all at the same time.

I know it probably seems uncanny to read such a brilliant novel so soon after Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap, but Shriver’s So Much For That deserves just as much attention — and acclaim.