Australia, Author, Book review, Children/YA, Fiction, Garry Disher, Hodder, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR2020

‘The Divine Wind’ by Garry Disher

Fiction – paperback; Hodder; 151 pages; 2002.

I will admit that when I purchased Garry Disher’s The Divine Wind last year from a secondhand bookstore for the princely sum of $1, I did not realise it was a young adult novel. I associate Disher with adult fiction, usually crime, and because I’d never read him before I jumped on the name and thought it might be a good introduction to his work. It wasn’t until I got home that I realised my mistake…

Except it wasn’t really a mistake, because The Divine Wind turned out to be quite an entertaining read, perfect fodder for an over-tired brain that just wanted some escapism while the outside world went a bit mad.

Against the backdrop of the Second World War, it’s essentially a coming of age story about four teenagers living in the pearling town of Broome, on the far north Western Australia coast, and what happens to them over the course of a few event-filled years.

Looking back

The story is written from the perspective of an adult Hartley Penrose, the son of a pearling master, looking back on his teenage years. He has a younger sister Alice, with whom he is particularly close following their mother’s return to England (she could never quite get used to her isolated, lonely life in Broome), and together they are friends with Mitsy Sennosuke, the daughter of a Japanese diver employed by their father, and Jamie Killan, who has just moved to town with his family. The four of them hang out regularly; they go swimming and sailing, or see films at the cinema.

But the carefree nature of their existence changes when a disastrous cyclone hits the coast which results in Mitsy’s father dying at sea and Hartley suffering a serious leg injury from which he never fully recovers. Not long later, the Japanese bomb Broome and soon Mitsy and her mother are viewed with suspicion because of their ethnicity; they are later interned.

Against all this drama, Hartley falls in love with Mitsy, who later becomes a nurse, but his feelings are never fully reciprocated because it seems that she may have given her heart to Jamie…

Love and adventure

As much a love story as it is an adventure story, The Divine Wind is a richly written novel that deals with some very adult themes including love, death, racism and war.

It’s a highly evocative account of a particular time and place, where non-whites, whether Asian or Aboriginal, are treated with prejudice. It’s also an unsettling portrait of a harsh and demanding climate; of a lifestyle that is remote and lonely; and a community that isn’t always forgiving.

It’s wonderfully moving and powerfully told.

This is my 10th book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. 

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Children/YA, Christoffer Carlsson, crime/thriller, Fiction, Publisher, Scribe, Setting, Sweden

‘October is the Coldest Month’ by Christoffer Carlsson

Fiction – paperback; Scribe; 181 pages; 2017. Translated from the Swedish by Rachel Willson-Broyles.

A teenage girl unwittingly caught up in a terrible crime is the focus of Christoffer Carlsson’s young adult novel October is the Coldest Month.

Set in Sweden, it tells the story of 16-year-old Vega Gillberg, who lives with her widowed mother, a nightshift worker, and an older brother, Jakob, in a working-class community in Småland, an area known for its huge forests and bogs.

When the police knock on the door looking for Jakob, Vega knows exactly why they want to question him, but she hasn’t seen him for days and she figures he’s gone into hiding — with good reason.

As the story gently unfolds piece by piece, we come to learn of the crime, but Carlsson holds his cards close to his chest and never fully reveals the motive, nor the culprit, until the final pages. It makes for an intriguing, atmospheric read.

Teenage narrator

Told in the first person from Vega’s perspective, October is the Coldest Month cleverly shows how the world of a teenager on the cusp of adulthood opens up when she discovers that good people can do bad things — and vice versa.

It’s written in cool, detached prose but with an eye to evocative description. Here, for example, is how the place in which Vega lives is described:

If you look at a map of Varvet, the area where I live, you can see there are several hundred metres or even a kilometre between people’s homes — at least the ones that are marked on the map. As if God took a handful of houses, garages, barns, stables, and sheds in his giant hand and let them float down to earth, cold and lonely as snowflakes spread out in a funny pattern. The landscape and the forest are the old kind that make you want to keep to the roads and paths even during the day. The summers always pulsate with heat, and in the autumn and winter the air is damp and raw.

Tough lives

The working-class background, depicting tough lives hardened by tough attitudes and violent tendencies, is reminiscent of the deeply reflective work of Per Petterson, one of my favourite realist writers, while the social context of the crime brings to mind Karin Fossum’s wonderful crime novels.

Admittedly, I did not know this was a young adult novel when I bought it (from a local second-hand book shop), but it deals with very adult themes — Vega, for instance, is sexually active — and demonstrates the complexities of life, the moral codes by which we live and the ways women are often abused by men in domestic settings. What’s more, there’s no redemptive ending, but there’s enough here to make the reader think about the far-reaching consequences of our actions.

October is the Coldest Month is a short, sharp, powerful novel with edgy characters and an edgy setting, a compelling tale if you’re looking for an “easy” read with darker undertones. In 2016 it won the Swedish Crime Writers Academy award for Best Crime Novel of the Year for Young Readers.

Author, Book review, Children/YA, E. Lockhart, Fiction, Hot Key Books, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘We Were Liars’ by E. Lockhart

We-were-liars

Fiction – Kindle edition; Hot Key Books; 242 pages; 2014.

E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars received a lot of favourable publicity, especially on Twitter, over the summer. I was intrigued enough to want to read it, even though young adult novels aren’t normally my kind of thing and I don’t usually fall for hype.

I ended up gulping this book down in a couple of days in late July and as soon as I finished it, I turned back to the start to read it all over again. That’s because this book has a completely unexpected shock ending, one that left me feeling stunned for days afterwards, and I wanted to know how I hadn’t seen it coming. What clues had I missed first time round? How had the author managed to pull the wool over my eyes so well?

A life of privilege

The book is narrated by 17-year-old Cadence Sinclair recalling “summer 15 ” before “the accident”. She lives a rather privileged life as part of the Sinclair clan, which can trace its lineage back to the Mayflower. Each year members of the clan holiday on their own private island near Martha’s Vineyard.

In a plot very much inspired by Shakespeare’s King Lear, three Sinclair sisters — Penny, Carrie and Bess — vy for the family inheritance. Cadence is the daughter of one of these sisters. She’s an only child and quite ill from an unspecified brain injury caused when she supposedly hit her head on a rock while swimming alone. No one knows why she was swimming alone and Cadence has no memory of it.

The “liars” of the title are Cadence and her cousins, Johnny and Mirren, and Gat, a friend of the family, who has been coming to the island since he was eight years old. This teenage gang of four is very close-knit and spend all their time together doing what teenagers do on holiday: gossip, swim, party and, in Cadence’s case, fall head over heels in love.

Teenage friendships

We Were Liars perfectly captures what it is like to be a teenager, of trying to fit in but not wanting to stand out, of the peer pressure you feel and the ways in which friendships, whether sexual or not, take on an all-consuming quality.

The book is written in a very immediate and engaging style, with an emphasis on rhythm so that much of the prose reads like poetry:

I used to be blond, but now my hair is black.
I used to be strong, but now I am weak.
I used to be pretty, but now I look sick.
It is true I suffer migraines since my accident.
It is true I do not suffer fools.
I like a twist of meaning. You see? Suffer migraines. Do not suffer fools. The word means almost the same as it did in the previous sentence, but not quite.

I especially loved Cadence’s voice, which has a cutting edge to it — she’s a moody, bitter, smart and sassy teenager, who doesn’t quite realise how good she’s got it, regardless of the migraines and health issues she suffers. Her mother is overly critical, often telling her to “act normal”, but Cadence is also prone to drama and exaggeration. As an example, when her father announces he’s leaving the family, Cadence says he pulled out a gun and shot her, but it’s only later that you realise she’s talking figuratively, not literally. This is a clever device because everything else that follows casts a degree of doubt in the reader’s mind as to what is real and what is not.

Indeed, there’s a certain kind of fairytale element to the whole story, which is dotted with lots of light, joyful moments underpinned by a dark undercurrent that doesn’t fully merge into focus until you reach that surprise ending. I loved the portrait it painted of young privileged lives, of being relaxed and carefree, but I also liked the way it posited the idea that you should never take anything for granted and that being rich does not necessarily buy happiness.

We Were Liars showcases Lockhart’s storytelling prowess: it’s quirky and compelling, haunting and kind of magical, but it’s also sad and heart-breaking. And that amazing ending makes it a rather unforgettable read, too.