20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2020), Alan Carter, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2020, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Fremantle Press, Kristina Olsson, literary fiction, Publisher, Scribner, Setting, Weidenfeld & Nicolson

3 Recommended Reads: Alan Carter, Kristina Olsson and Bernhard Schlink

The season has changed and  #20BooksOfSummer is long over, but I am a little behind in my reviewing. That’s why I’ve decided to produce this small wrap-up of the last three books I read as part of that challenge.

The three books featured here are all very different from each other, probably a good representation of my diverse taste, but they do have one thing in common: they are all set in Australia.

The trio includes a page-turning police procedural, a lush literary novel set in the 1960s and a German novel about art and dying. They are all highly recommended reads worth seeking out.

‘Heaven Sent’ by Alan Carter

Fiction – paperback; Fremantle Press; 322 pages; 2018. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Walking the streets of Fremantle, my newly adopted city, isn’t quite going to be the same having now read Alan Carter’s crime novel Heaven Sent. That’s because this gripping hard-to-guess crime tale is about a series of gruesome murders in various locations — all familiar to me — across Fremantle.

All the murders are of homeless people and the killer leaves a calling card, almost as if he is taunting the police by leaving “clues” no one quite understands. To complicate matters further, a local journalist dabbles in the investigation by communicating online with the killer as he plays a dangerous game that puts Detective Senior Sergeant Cato Kwong’s career, family and life on the line.

This is actually the fourth book in the Cato Kwong series, which began in 2010 with Carter’s debut novel, Prime Cut. I hadn’t read the previous two novels but it didn’t seem to matter, for this is a superb, intelligent crime novel, one that marries an authentic, atmospheric setting (Fremantle is renowned for its ghosts and, sadly, it’s homeless population) with a dedicated detective trying to balance his work and home life while carrying out a high-profile investigation. It’s got great pacing, is rich in detail and brims with human emotion — and humour.

‘Shell’ by Kristina Olsson

Fiction – paperback; Scribner; 374 pages; 2018. 

The controversy surrounding the construction and design of the Sydney Opera House in the 1960s forms the backdrop to Kristina Olsson’s lush literary novel Shell. Protests against Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War are also raging, giving the story a rich sense of time and place.

There are two main characters: Pearl Keogh, a newspaper reporter whose involvement in the anti-war movement has led to her being banished to the women’s pages; and Axel Lindquist, a Swedish sculptor who has been commissioned to create a unique piece of work for the Opera House. The pair meet and fall in love, but this is not a typical love story.

Both have significant people missing in their lives and both are on quests to find salvation to personal problems; their romance is almost subsidiary to their individual obsessions. As a result, there is nothing ordinary about their partnership, just as there is nothing ordinary about this gently nuanced novel.

Full of exquisite imagery and the inner-most thoughts of the intelligent people at its heart, Shell unfolds slowly, but rewards the patient reader with a moving story about art, architecture and family, as well as the importance of staying true to yourself and your beliefs. I loved the way it made me slow down and pause for breath, to think about things more deeply and to experience the story’s very many layers of meaning.

‘The Woman on the Stairs’ by Bernhard Schlink

Fiction – paperback; W&N; 225 pages; 2016. Translated from the German by Joyce Hackett and Bradley Schmidt.

I love novels about art and artists, so Bernhard Schlink’s The Woman on the Stairs ticked all the right boxes for me.

But it is a book of two halves. The first reads like a psychological thriller involving the mysterious reappearance in Sydney, Australia, of a European painting (the woman on the stairs of the title) that has been considered missing for decades. The second is a more nuanced, gentler affair about caring for a terminally ill patient in unusual circumstances. How these halves come together is what makes this novel — which is essentially about three men fighting over the one woman — an unusual but compelling one.

The first person narrative, written in a dry, detached manner from the point of view of a lawyer who falls in love with the woman in the painting, gives the novel a confessional feel. I loved its themes of emotional restraint, regret, impulse and obsessions, while its short chapters and fast pace meant I raced through this in just a couple of sittings. This is a good one to read if you are looking for something a little different.

These books represent my 15th, 16th & 17th books for #20BooksofSummer / #20BooksOfSouthernHemisphereWinter. The Kristina Olsson book is my 17th book for #AWW2020

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2020), 2020 Miles Franklin, 2020 Stella Prize, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2020, Book review, Fiction, Hamish Hamilton, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, Setting, Tara June Winch

‘The Yield’ by Tara June Winch

Fiction – paperback; Hamish Hamilton; 344 pages; 2019.

If you live in Australia, you would probably have to be living under a rock not to know this novel by Wiradjuri author Tara June Winch. The Yield won this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award, arguably this country’s greatest literary prize, as well as the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction at the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. It has been shortlisted for numerous others, including the Stella Prize and the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards.

It tells the story of August, a young Aboriginal woman, who returns home — after a decade living in London — to help bury her beloved grandfather, Albert ‘Poppy’ Gondiwindi. Poppy was midway through writing a dictionary of his people’s language, but his work has gone missing and August is intent on finding it so that she can finish the task at hand. But back on country, August discovers there are bigger challenges ahead: her grandparents’ house is about to be repossessed by a mining company.

It’s a multi-layered, multi-generational story that revolves around grief, loss and dispossession, but teases out, gently but oh-so surely, what it is to be Aboriginal, to have a sense of identity, a true purpose and a language of one’s own.

I read this rather extraordinary novel earlier this year (as part of my #20BooksOfSummer challenge), but never got around to reviewing it mainly because I couldn’t find the words to do it justice. Since then, I have seen numerous other positive reviews online — Lisa’s from ANZLitLovers, Sue’s from Whispering Gums, Kate’s at Booksaremyfavouriteandbest, and Brona’s at Brona’s Books — all of which are excellent summations of a truly excellent book.

Rather than repeat what others have said, I thought I would quickly describe three things I loved about this award-winning novel so that you get a flavour of what to expect.

1.The Structure

The book has three main narrative threads, which are told in alternate chapters: the first is August’s tale, told in the third-person, covering her homecoming and the pain and anguish she feels upon Poppy’s death, an event that triggers traumatic memories associated with the disappearance of her sister, Jedda, years earlier; the second is comprised purely of extracts from Poppy’s dictionary (more on this later) written in a conversational first-person voice; while the third is a handful of letters written in the early part of the 20th century by Reverend Ferdinand Greenleaf, a German national who established and ran the mission (upon which the Goondawindi family live) in 1880.

This trio of storylines gives us different perspectives — spanning more than a century — on identity and the Aboriginal “problem”.

2.The Dictionary

Poppy’s dictionary, based on the language of the Wiradjuri people, is completely fascinating for anyone who loves words and language. Each entry reads like the sort of entry you’d expect to see in an established English dictionary, such as the Oxford or Macquarie, with the word bolded up and translated into English.

But the definition is written in a conversationalist tone, with Poppy telling a tale from his past revolving around that word. Through these dictionary entries, he is able to share his life story and the importance of culture and language to his being.

sap of trees — ‘dhalbu’ The dhalbu of the bloodwood tree saved some of the Gondiwindi. When we were being gathered up to be taken away and taught the Bible and be trained as labourers and domestic servants, my great aunties were frightened and ran. Tried to hide their light-skinned babies in the bush. Some did get away and were never seen again. And some couldn’t leave in time and disguised their babies as full-blood by painting them dark with the dhalbu. Some of them were later captured. They wander around the river that appears when I travel with the ancestors, blood and sap soaked, hiding in plain sight now but still frightened.

3.The immersive nature of the story

This probably sounds a bit vague, but reading this novel was a truly immersive experience in a way I have rarely known. It’s like a bit of “magic” happened inside my brain as I read it, because somewhere in my mind I was able to triangulate the three storylines to build up an almost complete picture of not only what had happened to the Gondiwindi family over a century of struggle and dispossession, but I could see how it had come about and how resilient these people had become.

I was able to see how the Reverend’s aims, so easily written off as racist when viewed through modern eyes, came from an essentially good, if seriously misguided, place; I could feel inspired by the ever-optimistic Poppy, who had defied everything that had been thrown at him because of the colour of his skin to lead a fulfilling life full of meaning and harbouring next to no bitterness; and I could empathise with August, who ran away from all she knew because that was the only way she could handle a personal tragedy.

For all these reasons, The Yield really is a triumph of storytelling. I particularly loved and admired the ambition of it.

The cover of the UK / USA edition

The Yield has already been published in the USA; it will be published in the UK next January.

This is my 16th book for #AWW2020 and my 14h book for #20BooksofSummer / #20BooksOfSouthernHemisphereWinter. I purchased it from my local indie book shop not long after it was first published last year. I hadn’t really heard much about it at the time; I was mainly attracted to the pretty cover adorned with pictures of brolgas. Shallow? Moi? Never!

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2020), Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, John Banville, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting

‘The Blue Guitar’ by John Banville

Fiction – Kindle edition; Penguin; 274 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

It’s been a long time since I have read anything by John Banville. I always forget how much I enjoy his writing until I pick up one of his books again.

The Blue Guitar, published in 2015, is about an Irish artist by the name of Oliver Orme who conducts an affair with his best friend’s wife, Polly.

It’s a languid, richly immersive story that features all of Banville’s typical literary flourishes — long, flowery sentences, vivid detail and an impressive vocabulary — and his usual trademarks — men with secrets, an obsession with art and crimes of the heart.

A confessional tale

The story is narrated by Oliver in a pompous, self-obsessed voice (Banville does these kinds of characters so well) after the affair is over. He’s nursing his wounds and looking back on how the affair started and then how it ended. His detail is forensic.

But for all Oliver’s narcissism, there is a vein of stark honesty running throughout his tale: he really wants to confess all (or maybe he just wants to brag?). He describes himself as old  — “pushing fifty and feel a hundred, big with years”  — and fat, a man with a shameful secret  “of which, however, I am not as ashamed as I should be”. That secret is his penchant for petty thievery.

The first thing I ever stole, the first thing I remember stealing, was a tube of oil paint. Yes, I know, it seems altogether too pat, doesn’t it, since I was to be an artist and all, but there you are.

He even sees the affair as a form of thievery.

But it’s true, I suppose. I did steal her, picked her up when her husband wasn’t looking and popped her in my pocket. Yes, I pinched Polly; Polly I purloined. Used her, too, and badly, squeezed out of her everything she had to give and then ran off and left her. Imagine a squirm, a shiver of shame, imagine two white-knuckled fat fists beating a breast in vain.

Similarly, Oliver views much of his world through the prism of an art lense, comparing events and scenes with famous paintings. In Edouard Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe, for instance, he sees his wife, Gloria, as the woman “in the buff” and Polly “off in the background bathing her feet”.

Later, he describes Polly having  “the look of a ravaged version of the flower-strewing Flora to the left of the central figure” in Sandro Botticelli’s Primavera.

Yet for all his high-brow observations and cultured view of the world, Oliver isn’t without a sense of humour. It’s understated, but I often laughed when I came across some of his funny remarks, including his description of himself, creeping around in a dark house…

[…] with the blanket clutched around me and my bare feet and furry little legs on show, I must have had something of the aspect of one of the smaller of the great apes, improbably decked out in drawers and vest and some sort of cape, or else a fallen king, perhaps, witlessly wandering in the night.

The narrative also contains many witty one-liners — “Lot of water under that bridge, let’s not drown ourselves in it”; “Nowadays it all feels like repetition. Think I’ve said that, too”; and “I dropped in to see my sister. She is called Olive. I know, outrageous, these names.” — which makes Oliver a little more down-to-earth than the picture he likes to paint of himself (pun fully intended).

A rich writing style

As ever, reading anything by Banville is to have your own vocabulary expanded exponentially (which is why it’s always good to read him on an electronic device with a built-in dictionary). Here’s just a handful of the words I had to look up: haruspicating, virescence, turpitude, immanence, anaglypta, micturating, winceyette, casuistry, sibylline, phthisic, hobbledehoy, homunculus and autochthons.

But he’s excellent at describing people — he loves to tell us what they’re wearing — including how they move, what their expressions reveal and so on. This is his pen portrait of Polly’s father:

He wore a three-piece suit of greenish tweed, and a venerable pair of highly polished brown brogues. Though his complexion was in general colourless, there was a ragged pink patch, finely veined, in the hollow of each cheek. He was a little deaf, and when addressed would draw himself quickly forwards, his head tilted to one side and his eyes fixed on the speaker’s lips with bird-like alertness.

I also like the way he uses metaphors and similes, with nary a cliché in site:

It strikes me that what I have always done was to let my eye play over the world like weather, thinking I was making it mine, more, making it me, while in truth I had no more effect than sunlight or rain, the shadow of a cloud.

I realise I’ve included more than my usual share of quotes in this review, but I find Banville’s use of language and the ideas he presents inspiring. The story itself is a thin one — it’s just a self-obsessed man falling in love with someone he shouldn’t, after all —  but no one could tell it in the same richly evocative way as Banville and through the eyes of a character only he could create.

You can find other reviews of this book at ANZLitLovers (here) and The Guardian (here).

This is my 13h book for #20BooksofSummer / #20BooksOfSouthernHemisphereWinter. I first received an advanced readers copy from NetGalley prior to publication in 2015 but never got around to reading it. Then the publisher sent me a lovely hardcover edition. And yet it has taken all this time to finally get around to reading it.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2020)

20 Books of Summer 2020 recap

So, here we are. Three months have passed since I signed up for another #20BooksOfSummer and I’m beginning to wonder where the time went.

It’s been a weird year — how’s that for an understatement — and I haven’t always been in the mood to read. I’ve watched a lot of streaming services (Netflix, Stan, SBS on Demand, iView etc) instead and caught up with a lot of Australian films and TV shows I missed out on when I lived in the UK for 20 years! And I’ve piled on the weight, eating too much chocolate and ice-cream and pasta, while I’ve been doing it!

I did have good intentions to read 20 books from my physical TBR, with the option to switch out ones from my digital TBR. And I almost made it: I read 17! These were as follows (arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname):

It’s hard to pick a favourite. I really loved A Week in the Life of Cassandra Aberline, and I got a lot of chuckles from Diary of a Somebody and I became truly immersed in the quiet, understated beauty of Shell.

I have a lot of reviews still to write, so keep your eye on the blog as I play catch-up over the next week or two.

So, that’s it for another year. I didn’t quite achieve the magic number of 20 books, but it was fun trying. Thanks again to Cathy for hosting.

Did you take part in #20BooksOfSummer? How did you do? Care to share your favourite read of the summer (or winter)?

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2020), Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Northern Ireland, Publisher, Salt Publishing, Setting

‘The Good Son’ by Paul McVeigh

Fiction – Kindle edition; Salt Publishing; 256 pages; 2015.

Paul McVeigh’s The Good Son is a coming-of-age story set in the Catholic working-class and Irish Republican district of Ardoyne, in Belfast, Northern Ireland, during The Troubles.

It is narrated by a schoolboy, Mickey Donnelly, who’s a smart kid with big dreams — when he grows up he wants to move to America.

I can’t wait to get to America. I’m going to work in a diner. I’ve got dreams.

But life is tough for Mickey, the apple of his mother’s eye, because his one shot at going to St Malachy’s, the local grammar school, has just been blown: his father has spent the required funds on alcohol and gambling.

Summer holiday

The book follows nine weeks in Mickey’s life during the long school summer holidays in which he dreads having to go to St Gabriel’s, where’s his older brother Paddy is in the sixth form and where all the boys are horrible and there will be no dancing or singing or acting lessons.

Caught between childhood and puberty, Mickey longs for his voice to drop so he can be regarded as a man rather than being labelled “gay” and “weird” by other children, including Paddy. It doesn’t help his reputation that he mainly hangs out with his little sister, Wee Maggie, whom he dotes on, and her friends instead of other boys (with the exception of Fartin’ Martin, a boy from school) and speaks in a “posh” way, using good manners which mark him out as different to other boys his age.

During his holidays he mainly plays with his pet dog Killer, lusts after his neighbour Martine, who encourages him to teach her to “lumber” (slang for sex) and has occasional run-ins with local bad girl Briege, whose father is in prison — rumour has it, he stole some sausages for the IRA.

Mother love

Mickey runs a lot of errands for his mother, whom he loves dearly. She becomes increasingly dependent on him to be her “good son” when Mickey’s dad leaves, taking the TV with him, but this proves a challenge when his freedom is constantly curtailed.

I have very clear instructions. Don’t go to the top of the street cuz there’s always riots. Don’t go to the bottom of the street cuz there’s No Man’s Land and there’s always riots. Don’t go near the Bray or the Bone hills cuz that leads to Proddy Oldpark where they throw stones across the road from their side. Don’t go into the aul houses cuz a wee boy fell through the stairs in one and broke his two legs. I think his neck too. Ma could be exaggerating. Oh, and don’t go onto the Eggy field cuz there’s glue-sniffers. Ma should have just tied me to the gate or locked me in a cupboard.

On one occasion, when he ventures to a part of town he is forbidden to visit, he gets caught up in a bomb explosion that kills his dog and injures his own head, though not seriously. He hides this fact from his mother, worried that he will get in trouble, and does not tell her that he saw Paddy, who may or may not be involved with the IRA, at the scene.

It’s this kind of careful balancing between comedy and melodrama that gives The Good Son its emotional power. It’s the kind of book in which the reader laughs out loud on one page, then turns over to be confronted by the stark reality of what it is like to be a child in a war zone.

I check there’s no Prods or gangs about in Alliance Avenue and cross to the corrugated iron barricades. There’s a tiny little door to the Prods. You’re not allowed to use it. You’d be murdered. They’ve started callin’ them peace lines which really makes me laugh cuz actually this is where people come to kill each other.

As the story inches towards the end of the school holidays, the drama slowly builds as Mickey’s family get caught up in events that put them at risk, forcing the “good son” to do something bad to protect them all. It’s a deftly told tale, compelling and charming in equal measure, but also alarming and heart-rending too.

The Good Son won the Polari First Book Prize in 2016.

Cathy, who blogs at 746 books, liked this novel a lot too.

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘Shadows on our Skin’ by Jennifer Johnston: another coming-of-age story set during The Troubles. It follows a Derry schoolboy, surrounded by violence and danger, who develops a platonic relationship with a female teacher and then discovers his world opening up…

This is my 12th book for #20BooksofSummer / #20BooksOfSouthernHemisphereWinter. I purchased it on 30 August 2017, I think because I had seen a good review of it on Savidge Reads, back in the day when Simon blogged.