20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2018), Australia, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Hachette Australia, literary fiction, Mark Brandi, Publisher, Setting

‘Wimmera’ by Mark Brandi

Wimmera

Fiction – paperback; Hatchette Australia; 260 pages; 2017.

Mark Brandi’s debut novel Wimmera had the unusual honour of winning the prestigious Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger in 2016 before the author even had a publishing deal.

Not long later Hatchette Australia picked it up and it was released in Australia last year. It has since been acquired by Legend Press, here in the UK, where it will be published next March.

Billed as a crime novel, I think it’s more accurate to describe Wimmera as literary fiction that just so happens to have a crime in it. The focus is really on two boys coming of age in rural Australia in the 1990s and what happens to them in one seminal year that changes their lives forever.

Body in the river

The book’s prologue sets the scene: two youngsters out looking for yabbies find a green wheelie bin stuck near a tree in the river of a small country town. The lid has been bolted down securely, suggesting that whomever closed it up “didn’t want what was in there to ever come out”.

The opening chapter spools back 20 years, to the same country town, where we meet Ben and Fab, two young boys, on the cusp of adolescence, who are best friends. Their lives are dominated by school and football and playing by the river.

Their carefree existence is hampered only by the violence of Fab’s Italian father, who lashes out with his fists, and troubled memories of Daisy, a local 14-year-old who hanged herself on the family’s clothesline. Later when Daisy’s family move away and a new neighbour, the mysterious Ronnie, moves in, Ben takes a summer job mowing Ronnie’s lawn hoping this will help him figure out who this strange man is: Fab has a theory he’s a secret agent.

In part two, the narrative returns to where it started and we find out that Fab is still living in the same town, working a dead-end job in the local supermarket, desperately unhappy and wanting to do something new with his life.

A knock on his door adds a frisson of excitement he doesn’t need. It’s a police detective:

“Mr Morressi, we think you might be able to help us with something. Something we found in the river.”

Southern Cross crime

Written in the third person, but largely told through the eyes of Ben, Wimmera is part of a new wave of internationally successful Australian crime novels dubbed “Southern Cross Crime”. (Think Jane Harper’s novels, The Dry and Force of Nature, Emma Viskic’s Resurrection Bay, and Emily McGuire’s An Isolated Incident — and they are just the ones I have been lucky enough to read.)

But it doesn’t follow the conventions of the genre. It’s not a police procedural, though there are snippets of police interviews in the final part of the novel, and it’s not so much a who did it (though you do have to read the entire book to discover the culprit), but a why did it.

As a crime novel, I don’t think it is particularly strong. There are too many holes in the plot and it doesn’t feel truly believable to me. And the impetus for the crime is too vague. Perhaps the author didn’t want to go into detail and didn’t want to sensationalise it, but sometimes subtlety doesn’t always work.

I think the narrative is better when the author focuses on small town life, particularly what it is like growing up in a rural town in Australia in the 1990s, which he conveys with affection and through clever cultural references tied to that period in history, including schoolboy obsessions with Nike Air Maxes, Australian cricket heroes — Dean Jones, Merv Hughes et al — and TV shows such as Knight Rider, Wide World of Sports and Hey, Hey, It’s Saturday.

The first part of the novel reminded me a little of Jasper Jones (a book I actually hated), but with a more robust prose style.

On the whole, Wimmera is an interesting tale about boyhood friendship that reverberates through the decades. It’s a strong debut novel, flawed in places, but one that marks Brandi as a talent to watch.

This is my 18th book for #20booksofsummer. (Yes, it’s taking me forever to write these all up!) I purchased it when I was in Australia on holiday earlier in the year. I’d not heard anything about it at the time; I was just attracted by the cover image and liked the sound of the blurb on the back.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2018), Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2018, Book review, Elizabeth Harrower, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Text Classics

‘The Catherine Wheel’ by Elizabeth Harrower

The Catherine Wheel by Elizabeth Harrower

Fiction – paperback; Text Classics; 352 pages; 2014.

First published in 1960, The Catherine Wheel features all of Elizabeth Harrower’s literary trademarks: a young woman, a claustrophobic relationship, a brooding atmosphere and brilliant psychological insights.

Set in London during the 1950s, it’s a grim portrait of both the city and the troubled life of a 25-year-old Australian woman who arrives from Sydney to begin a law course by correspondence.

Clemency James moves into a boarding house and has a small circle of friends who keep her entertained. But when she meets Christian, a good-looking man with a much older wife, her quiet, stable and studious existence gets thrown into disarray.

Kind-hearted and somewhat passive, Clem cannot resist Christian’s charms even though she knows he’s trouble, for Christian, an out-of-work actor, has a gambling and alcohol problem. He’s vain, petty and narcissistic.

When Clem agrees to give him French lessons of an evening to sustain her meagre allowance she feeds into Christian’s fantasy of moving abroad and becoming successful. He wants Clem to come with him, and while she realises it’s an unlikely prospect — he’s married after all — she somehow succumbs to his ways and finds herself caught up in a claustrophobic relationship from which she cannot extricate herself.

Her friends, fearful for her welfare, find that whatever they say, Clem takes against them: she truly believes that for all her lover’s faults she’s the one who will be able to change him.

Restrained psychological drama

I’ve read several of Harrower’s books now and like her two earlier novels — Down in the City and The Long Prospect — this one is a slow burner. The author takes her time to not only build up a deft portrait of her characters, she painstakingly sets the scene so that her restrained psychological drama, which plays out in a domestic setting, feels authentic and immersive.

By the time the reader realises that Clem has got in over her head, it’s too late: she’s become blinded by Christian’s woeful behaviour and now there doesn’t seem to be any turning back because even if she does realise what’s really going on, she will have to deal with the slow-burning shame of it.

I admit that this book did try my patience at times, perhaps because it’s slightly too long for a character-driven story, but on the whole I found it a fascinating look at the intricate emotional webs that flawed humans are capable of weaving. It also proves an insightful look at unstable personalities, alcoholism and the far-reaching effects of psychological abuse.

For another take on this novel, please see Guy’s review.

This is my 17th book for #AWW2018 and 17th book for #20booksofsummer (apologies, I’m still playing catch-up with reviews; I’ve got two more to go after this one). I bought it a couple of years ago as part of a set of Harrower novels published by Text Classics. She’s promptly become one of my favourite authors and I look forward to reading the remaining two novels I have in my TBR some time soon.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2018), Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting, short stories, William Trevor

‘Nights at the Alexandra’ by William Trevor

Nights at the Alexandra by William Trevor

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 103 pages; 2015.

William Trevor’s Nights at the Alexandra is a bittersweet novella about love, longing and devotion.

Brimming with nostalgia, it is told through the eyes of Harry, a 58-year-old bachelor looking back on his teenage years in provincial Ireland during the “Emergency” (Second World War).

Through Harry’s reminiscences, we learn he comes from a “Protestant family of the servant class which had come up in the world” and he had been expected to work in his father’s timber yard as soon as he finished his schooling.

But when, as a 15-year-old, he met Frau Messinger, a young British woman married to a German man twice her age, Harry’s eyes were opened to an alternative future.

Love at first sight

This is how Harry describes his first meeting with the woman who was to have such a long-lasting impact on his life:

She was an extremely thin, tall woman, her jet-black hair piled high, her eyes blue, her full lips meticulously painted: I had never seen anyone as beautiful, nor heard a voice that made me so deliciously shiver. ‘You looked for a blemish on her hands, on the skin of her neck or her face,’ I wrote in a notebook I kept later in my life. ‘There wasn’t one. I could have closed my eyes and listened to that husky voice for ever.’

Their platonic friendship is formed when she stops Harry in the street one day and asks him to deliver a flat car battery to the garage for her. She then asks him to bring a new one to Cloverhill, the big stone house on the edge of the village, where she lives.

This one request turns into a regular “gig” running errands and delivering packages for Frau Messinger, who often invites Harry into the house for tea, cake and conversation.

The relationship is an intimate but chaste one. She tells him stories about her life and writes him long letters when he’s away at boarding school in England. When his school friends tease him about it, he’s embarrased by their taunts. (“Houriskey wanted to know if I ever got a look about her skirts. At Liscoe grammar school there was a lot of talk like that; all humour was soiled, double meanings were teased out of innocence.”)

It’s only when Harry’s mother discovers that “the woman at Cloverhill” has given him a tie pin that he is forbidden from seeing her, a decision that he later defies.

Taking a stand

Nights at the Alexandra is a book that is as much about being an outsider as it is about growing up and taking a stand against your parents, for the Messingers are refugees, friendless in small town Ireland because everyone assumes they are Jews, and Harry is a Protestant in a largely Catholic country, sent away to England to go to school and expected to work in the family business when he graduates.

When Herr Messinger decides to build his wife a cinema — The Alexandra of the title — he asks Harry to run it. As much as he does not want to work for his father, Harry is torn, because he’s not sure he wants to run a movie theatre either, but later, partly in defiance of his parents but mainly through his love for Frau Messinger, he jumps at the chance to do so.

The story drips with Trevor’s trademark flair for melancholy and missed opportunities, and his prose is typically elegant and elegiac. The book is just 60 pages long but it’s written so tautly, with nary a word wasted, that it feels so much more powerful and authentic than a book, say three or four times longer, might.

It’s the mood of the novella that makes it such a memorable, haunting read, one that lingers in the mind long after the final page has been finished. Poor heartbroken Harry and the kindly Messingers will stay with me for a long time.

Added extras

This edition of Nights at the Alexandra (first published in 1987) comes with two additional short stories — The Ballroom of Romance (first published in 1972) and The Hill Bachelors (first published in 2000) — which carry on the melancholy theme. Both are set on Irish farms in the hills. In the first, Bridie realises her hopes of finding a husband have been dashed now that she’s trapped on the farm looking after her father who has had a leg amputated; and in the second, Paulie returns home to help his widowed mother and reluctantly settles into a new life as a “hill bachelor” when all the women of marriageable age that he courts don’t want to take up with him.

This is my 16th book for #20booksofsummer (yes, I’m still playing catch-up with reviews). I bought this one earlier in the year, attracted by the new livery that Penguin has used to republish all of Trevor’s wonderful stories. I’m mighty tempted to buy the whole set: I’m yet to read anything by this author that I haven’t immediately fallen in love with. You can read all my other reviews on my William Trevor page.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2018)

20 books of summer 2018 recap

20 books logoHow can it be September already? It only seemed like the other day I was trying to work out which 20 books I was going to attempt to read this summer and now the time to complete that challenge is over.

It’s been a truly extraordinary summer here in London — the hottest I’ve experienced in my 20 years living in the UK — and I’ve (mostly) loved it, though the lack of air-conditioning, both at home and in the office, has been trying.

You would expect that kind of weather would be conducive to lolling about with book in hand, but I found it did the opposite: it just made me too tired to concentrate. Or maybe that’s because work has been pretty full on ALL SUMMER and since May I’ve been doing an additional gig co-ordinating six pages of copy for a weekly magazine.  And, to top it all off, I spent three weeks of June studying in the evenings and weekends for my WSET Level 2 Award in wine and spirits, a professional qualification that was a fun commitment but hard work!

Still, I can’t complain too much: I also got to go on an amazing week-long trip to San Sebastian in Northern Spain and ATE ALL THE PINXOS AND DRANK ALL THE SPARKLING WINE! And now I’m looking forward to going back to Basque country in early October on a work trip to Rioja — I know, I have a truly awful job 🙂

But what about the books, I hear you say. Well, all up I managed to read 19 books from my TBR pile over the summer — just one shy of my goal to read 20! Of course, I haven’t had time to review them all (there’s four to  come, which I’ll try to publish over the next week), but here’s what I did read (in alphabetical order by author’s surname):

  1. ‘The Lone Woman’ by Bernardo Atxaga
  2. ‘Wimmera’ by Mark Brandi 
  3. ‘A Long Way from Home’ by Peter Carey
  4. ‘No More Boats’ by Felicity Castagna
  5. ‘Lie With Me’ by Sabine Durrant
  6. ‘The Catherine Wheel’ by Elizabeth Harrower
  7. ‘The Last Garden’ by Eva Hornung
  8. ‘This is Not a Novel’ by Jennifer Johnston
  9. ‘The Well’ by Elizabeth Jolley
  10. ‘Mr Phillips’ by John Lanchester
  11. ‘The Girl with Seven Names: Escape from North Korea’ by Hyeonseo Lee (with David John)
  12. ‘Fairyland’ by Sumner Locke Elliott
  13. ‘Border Districts: A Fiction’ by Gerald Murnane
  14. ‘Joyride to Jupiter’ by Nuala O’Connor (review to come)
  15. ‘Echoland’ by Per Petterson
  16. ‘Taboo’ by Kim Scott
  17. Nights at the Alexandra’ by William Trevor
  18. ‘The Secrets in Silence’ by Nicole Trope
  19. ‘Resurrection Bay’ by Emma Viskic

If I could hand out prizes, I’d give one to  John Lanchester’s Mr Phillips for being the WORST book, while I’d give Sumner Locke Elliott’s Fairyland a prize for the BEST book (closely followed by Jennifer Johnston’s This is Not a Novel).

The prize for “romp of the summer” would have to go to Sabine Durrant’s Lie With Me, which was such a fun  (if crazy) read, while the prize for the most thought-provoking read would have to be shared between Gerald Murnane’s Border Districts and Elizabeth Jolley’s The Well.

I hope you’ve had a fun summer (or winter, if you’re in the Southern Hemisphere) of reading. Did you do the 20 books of summer challenge? Did you read anything good? Who would you give your prizes to?

PS> Thanks, once again, to Cathy, who blogs at 746 Books for running and championing this challenge.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2018), Author, Book review, Fiction, Headline Review, Ireland, Jennifer Johnston, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘This is Not a Novel’ by Jennifer Johnston

This is not a novel by Jennifer Johnston

Fiction – paperback; Headline Review; 224 pages; 2003.

Thirty years ago, Imogen’s older brother went swimming in the sea off the Cork coast and was never seen again. Now, convinced that he may be still alive, she pieces together their family history and puts it down in a book, hoping Johnny, “somewhere in the world, may read it and may pick up the nearest telephone”.

This is the premise behind Jennifer Johnston’s This is Not a Novel, which was first published in 2002, making it her 13th work of fiction.

When the story opens Imogen has just sold her late father’s house on the Lansdowne Road, in Dublin, for a “whacking amount of money” and has inherited a trunk full of family correspondence and mementos, many of them from her grandparents and great grandparents, which shed light on their involvement in the First World War and the pains and small tragedies of another time and place.

The narrative is framed around the letters, press cuttings and diary entries Imogen finds in this trunk. Combined with Imogen’s memories surrounding the period immediately before Johnny’s disappearance and her memories from the current day, 30 years later, the book is a rich, elegiac tapestry of family history and deeply held secrets.

Refusal to believe

Three decades on, Imogen refuses to believe that Johnny ever drowned because her brother was a brilliant swimmer, and until he took against his father, was on track to become an Olympic champion. His body was never found.

At the time of his “death”, Imogen was in a psychiatric unit having lost the ability to speak and was thought to have had a nervous breakdown. She came of age during her confinement and was able to leave the institution without her parents’ approval.

The reason for Imogen’s loss of voice is key to the story. While we learn very early on that her mother, Sylvia, does not truly love her and acts rather coolly and indifferently to her, it’s not until the latter third of the novel that we understand what triggers Imogen’s fragile mental health. It’s shocking, but the clues are there for the reader who looks carefully enough to find them.

There’s a lot going on in this novel — about echoes of the past coming back to haunt the family, about unrequited love, familial love and acceptance of differences.

Two key characters — Bruno, the young German teacher who befriends Imogen’s family and becomes her first love, and Mathilde, the home help who escapes the Nazis and reinvents herself as a devout Catholic — are reminders that Ireland’s neutrality in both the First and Second World Wars is not without consequence.

I really loved This is Not a Novel. It’s very much typical Jennifer Johnston fare (I’ve read and reviewed much of her exhaustive back catalogue now) and features her trademark focus on nuance, the small hurts that render people emotionally fragile and awkward mother/daughter relationships. It’s a good a place as any to start if you have never read any of this author’s work before.

This is my 15th book for #20booksofsummer. I have no memory of buying it — I suspect it might have been on one of my short trips to Dublin at some point — but I do know that it’s been in my TBR for at least five years. I had been saving it up, because I only have a few Johnston novels left to read and I don’t want to get to a position where I’ve finished all her work because that means I’ll have no new JJ novels to discover.