2020 Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2020, Book review, Fiction, Lauren Aimee Curtis, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Orion, Publisher

‘Dolores’ by Lauren Aimee Curtis

Fiction – paperback; Orion Publishing; 144 pages; 2020.

It’s really no surprise that I would find much to like in Lauren Aimee Curtis’ Dolores, a perfectly paced novella about a teenage girl who hides her pregnancy from the Spanish nuns who take her in.

It’s written in that stripped-back prose I so adore and the settings — an isolated convent and a South American city — are atmospheric, but it is the third-person “voice” of this story — aloof, naïve, melancholy and occasionally chilling — that makes this such a compelling read.

Adopted by nuns

It follows a 16-year-old who flees her homeland (an unspecified Spanish-speaking country) for a new life in Spain. One 40-degree day she finds herself at the “bottom of a long, sloped driveway” that leads to a convent. Halfway up she collapses. She’s taken in by the nuns, who dub her Dolores, a name that means “aches and pains”:

There she is: Dolores. Newly named. Sitting at the kitchen table inside the convent, conscious of how bad she must smell. Her armpits are wet. Her mouth is dry. The nuns gather around her. Without saying a word, one of them places a glass of water in front of her. Dolores drains it quickly. The nun picks up the glass, slowly, and fills it once more. Dolores drinks. The water runs out the side of the glass and down her neck.

But Dolores’ story doesn’t start here. It’s told retrospectively and is informed by the knowledge, revealed in the opening pages of the novella, that six months after her arrival at the convent she has a baby son — “a small blob of angry flesh” — whom the nuns name Francisco.

Old life

This new life, in the convent, is far removed from her upbringing, where she…

…would buy the ice-cream from the petrol station and then eat it sitting on the bench near the pump because she liked the smell. It was something about the combination. The sweetness of the ice-cream – cold, then melting in her mouth – and the petrol fumes thick in her nose. She would sit on the bench and watch cars come and go, exchanging ceremonious nods with children who looked longingly at her ice-cream while Dolores feigned nonchalance. It really was the highlight of her life.

The narrative spans half a year of convent living interspersed with vignettes from Dolores’ past to create a deftly woven story that contrasts the familiar with the unfamiliar. We learn about her childhood and her discovery of boys and sex at a young age. It is, at times, confronting and alarming. Her boyfriend pimps her out (without payment of any kind) in sordid love hotels, where she grants sexual favours to teenage boys and older men.

This is in stark contrast to her new life, surrounded by women who have taken vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, but where the local bishop is known to be a “nun lover”

This structure gives the story a feeling of suspense, because the reader wants to find out what led Dolores to move continents and to discover who the father of her baby might be.

New life

In the convent, Dolores quickly adjusts to the nuns’ rhythms and daily rituals. She observes that there never seems to be enough food, that the Mother Superior has her favourites (whom she treats differently), that their days are dominated by domestic duties, prayer — and gossip. But she keeps her counsel and does not reveal that she’s carrying a baby. She does her chores, obeys her orders and begins to feel closer to God.

At the end of September, Dolores quietly turns seventeen. She has been at the convent for three months. At five-thirty in the morning, when the nuns wake up, the sky outside is blue-black. In the dim light of a lamp across the room, the nuns dress. Dolores lingers in bed, pretending not to watch.

Dolores is a book that is all about juxtapositions: old life versus new life, moral purity versus sexual promiscuity, obedience versus disobedience. It reads like a simple story, but it’s ripe with symbolism and meaning. There’s a lot to unpack here and I’m tempted to read it again to see what I might have missed the first time around.

It has a rather abrupt ending, but it’s perfect for the story: it lets you, the reader, come to your own conclusion about Dolores’ future, almost as if she walks off the page and into the real world.

I recommend this one if you’re looking for an atmospheric read that will give you plenty to chew on.

If you like this, you might also like this:

‘Mariette in Ecstasy’ by Ron Hansen: A mesmerising story about a 17-year-old girl who joins a convent and then begins showing signs of divine possession. Is it a hoax or a miracle?

This is my 3rd book for #2020ReadingsPrize for New Australian Fiction and my 15th book for #AWW2020.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Hong Kong, literary fiction, Naoise Dolan, Orion, Publisher, Setting

‘Exciting Times’ by Naoise Dolan

Fiction – paperback; Orion; 240 pages; 2020.

Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times has been compared with Salley Rooney’s Normal People. And I guess if you are looking for something of a similar ilk — a story about an Irish Millenial finding her feet in the adult world, getting enmeshed in a messy love life and negotiating complicated friendships  — then the comparison holds.

But Exciting Times is more droll, more sassy and far less angst-ridden than Normal People. It’s whip-smart, funny and self-aware. I really enjoyed it.

Life in Hong Kong

Set in Hong Kong, it charts a year in the life of 22-year-old Ava who flees Ireland to take up a poorly paid job as a TEFL teacher. She’s not expecting big things; she just wants to spread her wings, get over the unexplained sadness she felt in Dublin and perhaps make some money that doesn’t involve being a waitress.

In Hong Kong, she begins having regular lunch catch-ups with Julian, a posh English guy, who’s a lot older than her and works in banking. They have nothing in common, but Ava is desperate for easy company — she’s exchanging “little more than hellos and goodnights” with her two flatmates in the Airbnb she’s sharing and makes little effort to socialise with others at work — but Julian listens to her and they have great conversations.

Before long, she is spending several nights a week at Julian’s upmarket flat.

‘I’m glad we’re friends,’ he’d say, and far be it for me to correct a Balliol man. I felt spending time with him would make me smarter, or would at least prepare me to talk about currencies and indices with the serious people I would encounter in the course of adult life. We got on well. I enjoyed his money and he enjoyed how easily impressed I was by it.

Their relationship eventually morphs into a sexual, no-strings-attached one, but it’s hard to know who is using who. Julian will spend lavish amounts of money on Ava. He buys her gifts and meals out and lets her move into his guest room rent-free. But he doesn’t want to make a commitment, he just likes the sex and having her there to look after his flat when he’s away on business.

And Ava, who likes to think of herself as independent, sees no issue in being supported by a man she barely knows, using his credit card behind his back and inveigling her way into his friendship circle even though she doesn’t particularly like any of his friends and is hugely critical of their accents, their attitudes, the clothes they wear and even their hairstyles.

But Ava, who describes herself as “lacking warmth”, does develop feelings for Julian, and becomes frustrated when they are not returned in kind. It’s only when she meets Edith, a Hong Kong local educated in England, that Ava feels the ground shifting beneath her feet, for Edith, who works in an upmarket law firm, is cultured and sophisticated and successful. She has all the attributes that Ava admires and is desperate to acquire. The pair begin dating and, for the first time, Ava finds her feelings being reciprocated…

Manipulative relationships

There’s not much of a plot other than the unfolding of Ava’s relationships and the ways in which she manipulates, or is being manipulated by, others. She’s constantly “stalking” her lovers, checking up on their activities on social media, trying to gauge whether they are committed to her or not, and often over-analysing their texts and emails.

At times her behaviour shows her nativity and inexperience in both intimate and work relationships. She’s forever trying to fit in, but at the same time she’s cultivating a persona of detachment and this leads to her feeling alienated, of never been able to mix comfortably with the people she works or socialises with. (Apparently, Dolan is autistic, which makes me wonder whether Ava is, too.)

I was quieter and more openly begrudging now, and it was becoming clearer than ever that the other teachers found me odd. I’d encountered this opinion so many times, in so many places, that I’d come to find it comforting. It doesn’t matter if a fact is good or bad, I thought. You don’t mind once everyone agrees. Their consensus makes it true, and truth feels safe.

And yet Ava, for all her self-involvement, has a whip-smart intelligence. She has strong feelings about social and political issues, understands the class system and the ways in which it works against her, is “woke” about racism and sexism and homophobia — and is not afraid to speak her mind. And yet there’s a hypocrisy at play here because while she will rail against capitalism and the disparity between rich and poor, she sees nothing wrong in living off Julian’s money and of lusting after nice things she can buy to impress Edith.

Deadpan prose

Exciting Times is written in a deadpan prose style and moves along at a clip, but the characters are well rounded, feel flesh and blood real, and the dialogue is witty and snappy and believable.

It has the illusion of navel-gazing, but there’s a lot going on here that is conveyed by the things people don’t say, the misunderstandings that occur, the mood that is evoked. Dolan does an especially nice line in banter.

While I admit I am probably not the target audience for this kind of novel, I enjoyed it. It’s quick and simple to read, but the characters have remained with me and it reminded me of what it’s like to be in your early 20s, not quite knowing who you are, let alone how you fit into the grand scheme of things.

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, England, Fiction, Lezanne Clannachan, Orion, Publisher, Setting

‘Jellybird’ by Lezanne Clannachan


Fiction – hardcover; Orion; 432 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

It’s no secret that I like a good psychological thriller. I especially like stories that are fast-paced, the kind that make you want to stay up all night reading, and even better if there are plenty of plot twists and loads of secrets to unveil, so you’re never quite sure what the ending might hold in store. Throw in a feisty lead character, a liberal sprinkling of paranoia and menace, and I’m pretty much sold. I’m pleased to say that Jellybird, the debut novel by Lezanne Clannachan, ticks all these boxes.

A dangerous friendship

The story (which is told in the third person) revolves around Jessica, an up-and-coming jewelry designer, who has been married to Jacques, an ex-pat American, for five years. But  despite their obvious happiness together, Jessica has a slightly tortured past — her father deserted the family when she was a young girl and her anxious mother never quite recovered from the betrayal. This manifests itself in Jessica through nervous energy, a propensity to self harm, and lack of self confidence.

So when a flamboyant client, Elizabeth (‘Libby’) Hargreaves, strikes up a friendship, Jessica is delighted by the attention even if she is puzzled by Jacques’ obvious distaste for her. “Why would you want to be a friend with a woman like that?” he asks.

Of course, Jacques’ opinion is swept under the carpet — even when it starts to become clear to Jessica that Libby’s friendship is taking on a slightly stalkerish dimension (think Single White Female). As the narrative unfurls, this cloying sense of claustrophobia heightens to almost unbearable proportions. But to what end is Libby developing this almost unhealthy interest in Jessica? And what does it mean when Jessica finds her talking to Jacques, their heads together in what appears to be some kind of collusion?

Two narrative threads

This rather menacing narrative thread is only one half of the story. The other half, which is told in alternate chapters, explores Jessica’s back story — what it was like growing up in a caravan park, run by her mother, in a seaside town, and the secret friendship she struck up with a local teenage boy, Thomas, also known as the ‘ghost boy’, who later disappeared in mysterious circumstances.

These two threads are drawn together when Libby’s “friendship” so upsets Jessica that she makes the seemingly unwise decision to track Thomas down. Along the way, Jessica must confront some horrible home truths, including a brutal murder, a dodgy policeman and a troubled relationship with her mother.

This might sound rather far-fetched, but Clannachan writes with an assured hand, so there was never a time when I thought, this is getting ridiculous now. (That said, there were a couple of false notes that I wasn’t too sure about, including the policeman mentioned above, and an unreported sexual attack). Her exploration of sibling rivalries, marital tension and mother-daughter relationships is deftly and intelligently handled.

But it is Jessica’s downward spiral into a kind of manic frenzy of paranoia which makes the narrative work, because you’re anxious to see how events are going to play out — has she completely lost her marbles or is there a very real reason for her fear and anxiety?

Jellybird is an exciting read and all the loose ends are tied up neatly at the end, even though I wasn’t quite convinced by some of the explanations. It reminded me very much of Nicci French’s work and Anna Raverat’s chilling debut Signs of Life. It’s dark and unsettling, but it never sways from its course: a dramatic, often nail-biting, story told in a clear, heartfelt voice.

Author, Book review, Fiction, general, Ireland, Maeve Binchy, Orion, Publisher, Setting

‘Whitethorn Woods’ by Maeve Binchy


Fiction – paperback; Orion Books; 450 pages; 2007.

Holed up in bed mid-week with a terrible head cold I didn’t feel much like taxing my brain power, and so it was I came to read Maeve Binchy’s latest paperback, Whitethorn Woods. I won’t be the first to admit that Binchy’s novels aren’t exactly intellectually stimulating — they’re warm and fluffy and make you feel all gooey inside, perfect fodder for reading on the beach or curled up in bed when you’re unwell. But this one, I’m sorry to say, was a disappointing read.

The thing that bugged me most was not the storytelling, which is typically enjoyable, heart-warming Binchy fare, but the complete failure of the publisher to specify anywhere on the cover or blurb that this is actually a collection of interconnected short stories and not a novel. I am not a fan of the short story for no other reason than they  generally leave me feeling dissatisfied, because I want to know more about the characters, their motivations and lives. On that basis I’m a novel-reading kind of gal, and that’s probably how it will always be.

Whitethorn Woods comprises 13 short stories, each one divided into two parts so that the same story is told from two different points of view, an interesting “twist” which demonstrates Binchy’s exemplary story-telling skills. The characters in each story are all from the same place — a once sleepy Irish town called Rossmore, which is now booming but is choked by traffic.

These stories are connected by three “bridging” chapters — at the start, middle and end —  which explain how the town’s woods and a well dedicated to St Ann are threatened by a new bypass. It’s a nifty idea, but I couldn’t help but wonder if Binchy had simply chucked together all those unpublished short stories she’s written over the years, perhaps the ones languishing in the bottom drawer, and inserted a few common themes — the woods, the spiritual well, the town’s traffic problem — in order to get the next book out and into the shops. That might sound harsh, but as a reader I have to admit feeling slightly cheated by this book.

Still, if you like short stories, this is a good little collection, provided you don’t mind Binchy’s rather simplistic, sometimes cloying, view of life in which hard work is always rewarded, love can be found in the most unexpected of places and good things happen to kind people.

But personally, as much as I enjoyed reading about the quiet lives told within each story, I struggled to enjoy Whitethorn Woods as a whole.

If you’ve not read anything by Maeve Binchy before, I suggest this is not the place to start, because if you do it could well be the last Binchy you ever read — and that would be a sad thing given her extraordinary back catalogue of feel-good fiction.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Italy, Massimo Carlotto, Orion, Publisher, Setting

‘The Colombian Mule’ by Massimo Carlotto


Fiction – paperback; Orion, New Ed edition; 184 pages; 2004. Translated from the Italian by Christopher Woodall.

Somehow the Colombian knew he was fucked the moment he met the cop’s gaze.

So begins Massimo Carlotto’s hardboiled Italian noir novel The Colombian Mule, which opens with Arias Cuevas being detained at Venice airport with a belly full of cocaine. When Cuevas describes his drug-smuggling contact — “about fifty, medium-height, a bit fat, with light brown hair” — the Italian police arrest the wrong man. Is it a case of mistaken identity, or are the police bending the law for their own means?

Enter Alligator, an unlicensed private investigator, and his band of borderline-corrupt cohorts, who wants to discover the truth behind the arrest and bust the drug smuggling ring in the process. But in this seedy underworld peppered with shady characters — greedy, violent and immoral — the normal rules of engagement do not apply.

Set in Venice and the grimy industrial surrounds of Mestre, this short but action-packed novel delivers a deftly woven storyline that blurs the line between those who break the law and those who enforce it. It is a dark, violent but ultimately compelling novel  told in a clear, succinct style that grips from the first carefully measured word.

Think The Sopranos meets Goodfellas — without the Americanised gloss — and you might get some idea of the beauty and brutality contained within the pages of this not-for-the-faint-hearted novel by an Italian master. Just don’t expect to view (romantic) Venice in the same way again…

Author, Book review, Fiction, general, Greece, Maeve Binchy, Orion, Publisher, Setting

‘Nights of Rain and Stars’ by Maeve Binchy


Fiction – paperback; Orion; 400 pages; 2005.

Reading a book by Maeve Binchy is akin to sitting in front of a roaring fire on a cold winter’s day with a box of chocolates and a bottle of red wine: cosy and comforting. Maeve Binchy is one of my guilty pleasures, although it’s been about a decade since I last succumbed to temptation.

Night of Rain and Stars is not strictly typical Binchy fare, mainly because it’s set in Greece (not Ireland) in current times (not the 1950s or 60s). But it still has heart-warming characters, each of whom is struggling with personal issues. First, there’s David a young Englishman on the run from his parents who want him to work in the family business; Elsa, a beautiful and kind (there’s always one of these characters in a Binchy book) TV journalist from Germany on the run from a lover she cannot trust; Fiona, a naive nurse from Dublin who’s hooked up with a violent boyfriend her family can’t stand; and Thomas, a Californian academic on sabbatical who is still hurting from a divorce in which he lost custody of his young son.

These four characters are thrown together after a shipping disaster in the harbour of the idyllic Greek village they are all visiting for the summer holidays. Within days they have forged firm friendships with one another and discovered that they are all on the run from problems at home. Together, with the help of two local residents —  Andreas the elderly Greek taverna owner and Vonni the middle-aged expat Irishwoman who runs a craft shop — each person finds a solution they’d not ever anticipated.

Okay, it sounds a little soppy — and completely unrealistic (I mean, who makes instant friendships on a holiday?), but to be honest, I thoroughly enjoyed this lovely story which is about family relationships and the bonds of friendship. It’s an easy read, helped by ginormous-sized printing (perhaps indicating the “older” age group this book is likely to attract), but it’s a quick read too if you don’t mind stories without an obivous plot and a happy, relatively predictable, ending.

This book isn’t going to challenge you on any literary or intellectual level, but it doesn’t make any claims to do so. And sometimes it’s nice to read something completely escapist and “dependable”, isn’t it?

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Maj Sjöwall, Orion, Peter Wahlöö, Publisher, Setting, Sweden

‘The Laughing Policeman’ by Maj Sjöwall and Peter Wahlöö


Fiction – paperback; Orion; 224 pages; 2002. Translated from the Swedish by Alan Blair.

Described by many as a “classic of the police procedural”, The Laughing Policeman, by husband-and-wife Scandinavian team Maj Sjöwall and Peter Wahlöö, is a wonderfully realised piece of detective fiction.

While written in the late 1960s, the storyline is far from dated. It’s a well crafted and exquisitely plotted piece of fiction that had me hooked from the first page.

The setting is Stockholm, Sweden. It’s a cold, wet November evening and two policemen have just stumbled upon a double-decker bus that has driven off the road. On board are eight people, including an off-duty police officer, who have been gunned down by an unknown assailant. Who was the murderer and what was his motive? Why was the policeman onboard? And did he know the young nurse sitting next to him?

The crime — Sweden’s first ever mass murder — tests the resolve of all the detectives working on it, including Inspector Martin Beck whom appears in three other novels by Sjöwall and Wahlöö.

I initially found the writing in The Laughing Policeman a little disjointed — probably the fault of the translator and not the authors — but once I got used to the style I absolutely loved this book. The humour and the banter between the police working on the case really brought the story alive. And despite the grim subject matter,  I found myself chuckling throughout because of the one-liners.

This is definitely a classic piece of crime fiction that holds up against the best of its genre today, and I would highly recommend it to anyone after a powerful and intelligent read.