2017 Pultizer Prize Winner: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

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Title: The Underground Railroad

Author: Colson Whitehead

Genre: Fiction, Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction

Publisher: Hachette Australia

Published: 26th April, 2017 (latest edition), Trade paperback 9th August 2016

Format: Paperback

Pages: 306

Price: $19.99

Synopsis: #1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER and a NEW YORK TIMES BOOK OF THE YEAR

NATIONAL BOOK AWARD WINNER FOR FICTION 2016

2017 Pultizer Prize Winner

‘Whitehead is on a roll: the reviews have been sublime’ Guardian
‘Luminous, furious, wildly inventive’ Observer
‘Hands down one of the best, if not the best, book I’ve read this year’ Stylist
‘Dazzling’ New York Review of Books

Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. All the slaves lead a hellish existence, but Cora has it worse than most; she is an outcast even among her fellow Africans and she is approaching womanhood, where it is clear even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a slave recently arrived from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they take the perilous decision to escape to the North.

In Whitehead’s razor-sharp imagining of the antebellum South, the Underground Railroad has assumed a physical form: a dilapidated box car pulled along subterranean tracks by a steam locomotive, picking up fugitives wherever it can. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven. But its placid surface masks an infernal scheme designed for its unknowing black inhabitants. And even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher sent to find Cora, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.

At each stop on her journey, Cora encounters a different world. As Whitehead brilliantly recreates the unique terrors for black people in the pre-Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America, from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD is at once the story of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shatteringly powerful meditation on history.

~*~

In the antebellum South, Cora hasn’t seen much beyond the cotton plantation she is enslaved at in Georgia. An outcast as a slave and amongst slaves, Cora’s impending womanhood heralds an uncertain and painful future – one that she longs to escape but doesn’t know how. Until Caesar tells her about the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses set up during the nineteenth century to help slaves escape to free states. Assisted by abolitionists along the way to navigate the route and keep hidden from the slave catcher, Ridgeway. Running for her life and freedom after killing a white boy who tried to stop her, Cora must take on new identities and try to blend – working with a system that at each point, brings disadvantage and bondage of different kinds, and faced with the ignorance that breeds racism in the antebellum South.

Separated at one stage from Caesar, Cora must continue alone, and rely on fellow escaped slaves, freemen and abolitionists, all working to abolish slavery in America, in the decades leading up to the Civil War of 1861-1865. In a penultimate confrontation at a community of former slaves and abolitionists, tragedy strikes and Cora must use all the strength she has left to cross over into the free states, and begin to venture into a life she has control over, but that is still scarred by the shackles and chains of slavery.

Before reading this book, I knew a little bit about the antebellum South, the Underground Railroad, and slavery from a university history course on the American Civil War. It did not go into too much depth from memory, so Colson Whitehead’s novel helped to bring these stories to life more for me. As I read Cora’s story, I found it engaging, and at the same time horrifying: it was a story that gripped me on a human level, horrified at the way Cora had been treated, and as soon as she had some hope, it was ripped away too quickly. As the key character, all events and characters are seen through her eyes, and her judgement, but as she travels the Underground Railroad and encounters a variety of people in all walks of life, it felt that Colson Whitehead was showing the breadth and depth of how different people reacted to slavery, and how they felt about it. This made Cora’s story more powerful as she worked out who she could put her trust in and when, and in her dealings with Ridgeway when he caught up with her.

Using this historical backdrop, Whitehead has created a world of authenticity with a darkness to it that can’t be escaped or denied when discussing slavery and the antebellum South in the nineteenth century. Whitehead’s story mingles literary fiction and historical fiction, with a nice balance of character and plot throughout, interspersing Cora’s story with perspectives of her mother, Caesar and an abolitionist’s wife who nursed her back to health when she got sick. Cora travels through states that are determined to drive out the black population entirely, and states who seem to deal with black people but still treat them like second class citizens, or worse. The dehumanising language of slurs and “it” to refer to runaway slaves are shocking – but necessary. They set the tone for the characters and the setting of the novel as well.

Colson Whitehead has sewn the threads of this novel together eloquently, and by evoking a sense of place for each stop along the Underground Railroad, a sense of self in Cora and utilising speech patterns that fit the characters and places, has created a novel that must be read to understand the other side of the story to slavery and the Underground Railroad: the hopelessness felt by slaves, and the way they were mercilessly pursued and viewed as property in many places.

By shocking readers with the raw brutality of this period in time, Colson Whitehead’s novel will hopefully open up a dialogue and allow these issues to be explored further.

Sydney Writer’s Festival Appearances and links:

Colson Whitehead: The Underground Railroad (Conversation)

Saturday 27th May 8.30-9.30PM

https://www.swf.org.au/festivals/festival-2017/colson-whitehead-the-underground-railroad/

Pulitzer Prize Winners Colson Whitehead and Hisham Matar

https://www.swf.org.au/stories/pulitzer-prize-winners-colson-whitehead-and-hisham-matar/

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Rather Be The Devil by Ian Rankin

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Title: Rather Be The Devil

Author: Ian Rankin

Genre: Crime

Publisher: Hachette

Published: 3rd November, 2016

Format: Paperback

Pages: 310

Price: $32.99

Synopsis: Some cases never leave you.

For John Rebus, forty years may have passed, but the death of beautiful, promiscuous Maria Turquand still preys on his mind. Murdered in her hotel room on the night a famous rock star and his entourage were staying there, Maria’s killer has never been found.

Meanwhile, the dark heart of Edinburgh remains up for grabs. A young pretender, Darryl Christie, may have staked his claim, but a vicious attack leaves him weakened and vulnerable, and an inquiry into a major money laundering scheme threatens his position. Has old-time crime boss Big Ger Cafferty really given up the ghost, or is he biding his time until Edinburgh is once more ripe for the picking?

In a tale of twisted power, deep-rooted corruption and bitter rivalries, RATHER BE THE DEVIL showcases Rankin and Rebus at their unstoppable best.

~*~

ian-rankin-2In Rebus’ twenty-first outing, Rather Be The Devil, which marks thirty years since the misanthropic detective who investigates the dark underside of Edinburgh and the crimes it tries to conceal. In Rather Be The Devil, Rebus is retired, though rather unwillingly, and is haunted by an unsolved murder from forty years ago: Maria Turquand. Alongside this, a crime syndicate is trying to evade justice and capture. Naturally, a retired Rebus becomes embroiled in these cases, assisting his former colleagues as he grapples with health issues that he is hiding from those who care about him.

Told in third person, most scenes involve Rebus but there are a few that are seen from the perspective of another character, giving the reader insight into the world Rebus lives in. It is a world of history and darkness, in a city I have visited and could picture in my mind: Princes Street lined by old buildings, the Royal Mile and cobblestones leading up to Edinburgh Castle. Even the names of some of the surrounding areas of Leith were familiar. It is set in a place that has a varied history, an interesting one, that towers architecturally over Rebus and his colleagues as they uncover the unsavoury figures that seek to destroy lives.

Rather Be The Devil refers to events that have occurred in earlier books, and though some things may follow on from what has come before, they do not have a large impact on the story. Hints of what has made Rebus who he is made me want to find out more, so hopefully I can track down some more of the books but overall, I was able to follow the plot as a stand alone story.ian-rankin-2017a

It is a dark and gritty story, but not overly violent. Ian Rankin has taken a beautiful city and placed a gritty misanthrope within it, and contrasted the beauty of Edinburgh with the horror of crime and rankled Rebus, and this works well. The contrast allows for an ongoing story to be told, and for immersion in Edinburgh and the world of Rebus.

With an interesting character, and a mystery that refuses to be let go until it is solved, Rather Be The Devil marks the thirtieth anniversary of Rebus well. Fans new and old will enjoy this outing of Rebus.

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Ian Rankin will be appearing at the Sydney Writer’s Festival, held between the 22nd and the 28th of May. Appearances are:

Conversation: Ian Ranking – Rather Be The Devil, Saturday, 27th of May, 2017 7.30 – 8.30 PM at Riverside Theatres, Parramatta

https://www.swf.org.au/festivals/festival-2017/ian-rankin-rather-be-the-devil-parramatta/

Ian Rankin: Who Says Crime Doesn’t Pay?

Friday, 26th of May , 6.30-7.30 PM at City Recital Hall, Angel Place, Sydney

https://www.swf.org.au/festivals/festival-2017/ian-rankin-who-says-crime-doesnt-pay/

Special Event: SWF Gala – Origin Story

Wednesday , 24th of May, 2017 6pm to 7pm at City Recital Hall, Angel Place, Sydney

https://www.swf.org.au/festivals/festival-2017/swf-gala-origin-story/

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Tattletale by Sarah J Naughton

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Title: Tattletale

Author: Sarah J Naughton

Genre: Ficiton/Thriller

Publisher: Hachette Australia

Published: 28th March 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 330

Price: $29.99

Synopsis: One day changes Jody’s life forever.

She has shut herself down, haunted by her memories and unable to trust anyone. But then she meets Abe, the perfect stranger next door and suddenly life seems full of possibility and hope.

One day changes Mags’s life forever.

After years of estrangement from her family, Mags receives a shocking phone call. Her brother Abe is in hospital and no-one knows what happened to him. She meets his fiancé Jody, and gradually pieces together the ruins of the life she left behind. But the pieces don’t quite seem to fit…

~*~

After a mysterious beginning, the reader is introduced to Mags and Jody, the sister and the fiancé of the victim, Abe. Beginning where they meet at the hospital following Abe’s fall, Mags meets Jody as the fiancé she never knew about, and a myriad of stories and reasons for her brother’s injuries that are explained away as an accident. Frustrated, Mags starts digging deeper into the lives of the other residents of the charity home her brother has been living in to uncover what really happened. As the story unfolds, secrets of each character are revealed, and one character’s past is cleverly revealed through third person flash backs amidst the first person narrative that do not directly identify whose story is being told. The big question hanging over this novel: Was Abe pushed and murdered, did he fall or did he commit suicide? And who will find out and reveal all?

Both Mags and Jody come from troubled, broken backgrounds – and show how each has dealt with them – where one is completely broken and child-like, the other is assertive and overly confident, even a bit pushy. It was an interesting way to illustrate the outcomes of abuse, and how people are treated based on biases and perceptions of them, and in a subliminal way, how wealth and money can influence outcomes and ensure the victim feels at fault – unless the truth comes out.

It was the kind of novel where as a reader, I was constantly at odds with whom to like and believe – which is the purpose of a psychological thriller. In a way, all the characters were playing games and hiding secrets, and most, such as Jody, appeared to have a reason to, and past horrors that impacted their current story line.

Following a path of twists and turns to the conclusion, the story shows just how flawed the act of manipulation of people and the law can be, and that people can move past a trauma, and show that they are more than who people assume they are based on a few stories of hearsay to protect the reputation of those who have the power.

It leaves much open to interpretation as well – and you may find your thinking about whom the victim is and who the suspect is will be questioned at some stages. Why would some characters be hiding the truth? As these facts are revealed, the path towards those who did not commit the crime but are merely witnesses becomes clearer, though the suspect is left as a shadowy figure for quite a while. It is cleverly done, as is the finale of the novel, and the ending that feels hopeful for both Jody and Mags.

An intriguing novel, that slowly reveals the true nature of the main characters and how they interact with each other, and what makes them who they are. If you enjoy thrillers, this is an intriguing novel to pick up.

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This Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel

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Title: This Is How It Always Is

Author: Laurie Frankel

Genre: Fiction

Publisher: Hachette Australia

Published: 31 January 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 332

Price: $32.99

Synopsis: All happy families are alike. But happy can be complicated…

Laurie Frankel’s THIS IS HOW IT ALWAYS IS – is a warm, touching and bittersweet novel about a family that’s just like any other – until it’s not. For readers of WE ARE ALL COMPLETELY BESIDE OURSELVES and THE UNLIKELY PILGRIMAGE OF HAROLD FRY.

Rosie and Penn always wanted a daughter. Four sons later, they decide to try one last time – and their beautiful little boy Claude is born. Life continues happily for this big, loving family until the day when Claude says that, when he grows up, he wants to be a girl.

As far as Rosie and Penn are concerned, bright, funny and wonderful Claude can be whoever he or she wants. But as problems begin at school and in the community, the family faces a seemingly impossible dilemma: should Claude change, or should they and Claude try to change the world?

Warm, touching and bittersweet, THIS IS HOW IT ALWAYS IS is a novel about families, love and how we choose to define ourselves. It will make you laugh and cry – and see the world differently.

~*~

This Is How It Always Is tells the story of a family coming to terms with their youngest child having Gender Dysphoria – where the assigned sex and gender at birth do not match with the gender identity someone is – and is transgender. Claude was born a boy, but inside, he senses he is a girl. And so begins the journey of his family – mother Rose, father Penn, and brothers Roo, Ben, Rigel and Orion, and Claude’s own journey – to becoming Poppy. All is going well in Wisconsin, until an incident threatens their lives, and they move to Seattle to start over. With the help of Mr Togo, and understanding that develops over time, Penn and Rosie and their family will come to accept Poppy for who she is, and who she wants to be.

The first novel I’ve encountered that deals with a transgender character, Laurie Frankel told the story with a sensitivity and understanding that comes from her experiences with a transgender child. She has captured the reality of what this could mean for an entire family – not just one person within the novel, and I think this makes it powerful – everyone is working, albeit not together and maybe not always in the best ways – to find a way for this family to be who they are. As with any family, there are conflicts, and confusion – how do we deal with Claude becoming Poppy, what do we tell people, and what decisions will have to be made. I found he flaws in the characters and what they said and did to be realistic – being faced with any challenges in life can be awkward and confusing. Rosie, Penn and their children aren’t perfect characters or people – each has their own biases and preconceptions to work through when they discover Claude/Poppy is transgender, and each works through this in their own way, unsure of what will happen when the secret they’ve kept – at first at the advice of Mr Togo – and how they will eventually let people know what has been going on – is unleashed.

I enjoyed this novel – because it started to teach me about transgender individuals and the challenges they face and that the people around them face in an accessible way – it was confronting at first – only because it was unfamiliar territory – but after a few chapters, I kept wanting to know how each family member was adjusting, what it meant for their daily lives. As an introduction to what this can mean for transgender people, this is a great novel. It deals with the prejudice and acceptance they face from other people – and what it means when people just accept you for who you are, rather than who society expects you to be,

Laurie Frankel has written this extremely well. A great introduction to the issue of transgendered people and the challenges they, and those around them, might face.

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RebusFest: Thirty Years of Ian Rankin and John Rebus – 1987-2017

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2017 marks the thirtieth anniversary of John Rebus in print. Rebus’s first outing, Knots and Crosses, came out in 1987, and his thirtieth adventure, Rather Be The Devil, came out on the third of November 2016, so keep an eye out for my review of this soon. To celebrate this anniversary, Edinburgh, Rebus’s hometown, will be hosting RebusFest – all things Rebus. It will be a festival of literature, music, art and film, and will be on between the 30th of June and the 2nd of July.

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Rather Be The Devil, published in November 2016 – thirtieth Rebus title

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This festival will give fans – old and new – the chance to explore the town Rebus lives in, and discover the story behind this iconic character of crime fiction in the modern world. When I read Rather Be The Devil, this will be my first Rankin novel, and my first outing with Rebus. Edinburgh is a great place to set a detective series – the old and new combine to create a world shrouded in mystery, set in the historic town, where shadows and mist hide crimes that a detective like Rebus can uncover.

Ian Rankin has curated the festival of music, talks about the historic and contemporary influences on Rebus – I am looking forward to discovering these as I read. Other activities at the festival include walking tours, screenings, food and drink, and experts, performers and artists, who will give more insight into the character of Rebus with Ian Rankin.

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Knots and Crosses, first published 1987

I look forward to reading my first Rebus novel, and hopefully will read more from there. The upcoming festival sounds like it will be exciting and a fabulous experience for readers of this series.

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The full festival line-up will be announced on the seventeenth of March, in just over a month’s time, so keep an eye out for that too if you are interested in going.

As well as RebusFest in Edinburgh, Ian Rankin will be touring Europe, North America, the Antipodes (Australia and New Zealand) and South East Asia.

Use one of these links to purchase the titles in Ian Rankin’s John Rebus series:

or

Meet Me At Beachcomber Bay by Jill Mansell

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Title: Meet Me At Beachcomber Bay

Author: Jill Mansell

Genre: Contemporary Fiction

Publisher: Hachette Australia, Headline Review

Published: January 10, 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 405

Price: $29.99

Synopsis: Love is in the air in St Carys, but you’d never know it – the people of this seaside town are very good at keeping secrets…

The man Clemency loves belongs to someone else. She has to hide her true feelings – but when she ropes in an unsuspecting friend to help, wires start to get crossed.

For the first time in Ronan’s life his charm has failed him in winning over the woman he wants. Loving her from afar appears to be his only option.

Belle seems to have the perfect boyfriend, but something isn’t quite right. And now a long-buried secret is slowly rising to the surface.

The truth has a funny way of revealing itself, and when it does St Carys will be a very different place indeed…

~*~

Meet Me At Beachcomber Bay was a book that took me a little longer than usual to get into. It is a genre I don’t really read out of choice, because I often find romance novels  have characters that are too perfect. In this one, there was a decent mix of characters with their own flaws and individual backgrounds. Set in the small town of St Cary’s the story revolves around a group of people who come to find themselves interlinked through each other for various reasons. Everyone has a secret to keep from someone else, some that they are unaware of until the final chapters of the novel.

Stepsisters Belle and Clemency are always at odds: this is no secret in St Cary – they have been since they were teenagers. Yet in a small town where gossip is rife, anything that they try and hide from each other, themselves or anyone else is sure to come out sooner rather than later. It is this gossip that leads to secrets that have been hidden for years to come to the surface, culminating in an all too convenient ending for each character and what they desire – whether it is love, friendship or family.

Marina, the artist is harbouring a secret of her own, and one she has not been able to share at all. Ronan is adopted, and happy, but always wondering about the woman he loves but cannot have, and his birth parents. Kate, the post carrier, has a secret that not even she knows about. And Clemency is in love with the man her sister is with – but does Belle really like Sam?

Each chapter is generally told from a different perspective at first, at least until everyone becomes linked and eventually, they are all consistently thrown together in one way or another, or at least with one or more people at a time. This technique allows the secrets to unfold slowly and to evolve as the characters come together.

Given that this is marketed as romance, or chick lit, the clean and convenient tying up of plots and characters is possibly expected, and the conflicts that lead to that point work. I would have liked a little more conflict though, rather than just everyone happily getting along. Though this isn’t what would happen in the genre, and even though it did not work for me, there are others who will enjoy it. I managed to make it to the end though, and in the end, did find aspects I enjoyed – The friendship between Ronan and Clemency was perhaps my favourite relationship in the book, and Ronan was my favourite character. His story was indeed the most intriguing, and I would have liked to have it explored a little more.

One thing I did like was that not every character got what they wanted immediately – even if it is inevitable that they will in the end – they had to go on their own journeys to get there. Ronan and Kate’s is perhaps the most interesting too – maybe because it is shrouded in more secrecy than the others, and the result come out quite suddenly – a shock that begins each relationship changing and the convenience of everything working out, and leading to a surprise ending for two characters that aren’t as prominent as Ronan, but just as important.

A great beach read, an easy read f you’re in the mood for something light, and the perfect read for people who, unlike me, enjoy this genre all the time.

Reading in 2017: My Goals

With 2016 coming to an end, I have started thinking about my wrap up post of the books I have read, and the challenge I participated in – a post I will only write once I know my challenge results. This will be included in a 2016 wrap up post of what I have read, how many books I read, and hopefully, a list of the top five I read, though that might be a bit of a challenge, having read so many good books this year.

Next year, I am aiming to read as much as I did this year, or perhaps more, and hopefully, do more reviews, more blog posts and more about reading, authors, and other posts that come to mind. I missed out on a few significant literary anniversaries this year, so I plan to keep on top of that. I plan to try and review other books as well as what I am sent by publishers – the beauty there is I can review older books as well, and hopefully introduce these to new readers. This year my Goodreads goal was 45 books – so far I have surpassed that by at least 20, including re-reads of a few favourites, but more on that in my yearly wrap up post.

2017 is my first year without studies. I will be reading more as a result, probably, and writing more. More blog posts, definitely, in the categories mentioned above. I hope to read some more non-fiction, in particular a book I picked up about pre 1788 Australia, pre-colonialism. We need books like this to do away with common misconceptions taught within our history classes, to discover the history we never get to learn in school – or even university in my case.

I am eagerly awaiting the release of a few books, some of which I hope to receive review copies for, but will hopefully purchase them if I don’t:

Frogkisser! By Garth Nix, towards the end of February

Draekora by Lynette Noni on the first of April (I may be receiving a review copy of this book from Pantera Press)

A Dangerous Language by Sulari Gentill – The 8th Rowland Sinclair novel

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

I am sure there are others, however, those are my top four and I eagerly await their release, especially the Pantera Press ones to find out what happens to Rowly and his friends, but also to Alex, Jordan, Bear and D.C. after that heart stopping cliffhanger in Raelia! At some stage, I may need to re-read Arkanae and Raelia before reading Draekora!

Apart from that, I will be reading any review copies I am sent, and trying to read all my other books. There are so many I need to read.

Looking foward to the coming year of reading, and will hopefully be able to set my challenges if any, early in the New Year.

The Book Muse

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