The Sixteen Trees of the Somme by Lars Mytting

sixteen trees.jpgTitle: The Sixteen Trees of the Somme

Author: Lars Mytting

Genre: Fiction

Publisher: Hachette Australia: MacLehose Press

Published: 8th August, 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 405

Price: $32.99

Synopsis: A 20th-century family saga of epic scale, by the author of NORWEGIAN WOOD.

By Norway’s bestselling novelist and the author of NORWEGIAN WOOD, a family story of epic scale.

Edvard grows up on a remote mountain farmstead in Norway with his taciturn grandfather, Sverre. The death of his parents, when he was three years old, has always been shrouded in mystery – he has never been told how or where it took place and has only a distant memory of his mother.

But he knows that the fate of his grandfather’s brother, Einar, is somehow bound up with this mystery. One day a coffin is delivered for his grandfather long before his death – a meticulous, beautiful piece of craftsmanship. Perhaps Einar is not dead after all.

Edvard’s desperate quest to unlock the family’s tragic secrets takes him on a long journey – from Norway to the Shetlands, and to the battlefields of France – to the discovery of a very unusual inheritance. THE SIXTEEN TREES OF THE SOMME is about the love of wood and finding your own self, a beautifully intricate and moving tale that spans an entire century.

Translated from the Norwegian by Paul Russell Garrett

~*~

The story that Norwegian author, Lars Mytting weaves is unusual, yet lyrical. In 1991, a young man, Edvard Hirjifell, begins an odyssey of discovery about his past, and the family he never knew, following the death of his grandfather, Bestefor. The mystery of his parents death begins the trip, and leads him to search for his grandfather’s brother, Einar, whom he hopes has not died, and will help him link the pieces of his past together. Edvard’s journey spans Norway, France and the Shetlands, discovering an unusual inheritance on the blood-drenched soils of the Somme from 1916, and a family legacy tainted by two world wars, and the horrors some of his ancestors were forced to go through. At times he finds himself questioning his identity, and as he finds people linked to his family, the puzzle pieces of his early life in 1971 begin to fall into place.

Translated into English from Norwegian by Paul Russell Garrett, The Sixteen Trees of the Somme was more character than plot driven, lending itself to literary fiction, and the subtlety within the writing that hinted at what was to come, what had happened and who someone was. As a result, the story was slowly revealed, each detail placed specifically to ensure maximum impact on the reader.

Initially I chose this book based on its title, hinting towards a story about the Somme and those who were there – however, both world wars were only mentioned implicitly in the early sections, and it was about half way into the story before the Battle of the Somme and the events of World War Two started to link up to Edvard’s family history, and what his French and Jewish ancestors had experienced, and how a soldier who had been at the Somme had come to impact his early life, and his link to that family. It became less about the wars themselves and more about the individuals in Edvard’s life who had been marked by war and tragedy. Through the eyes of Edvard, it reveals not only the tragedy and futility of war and sending young men off to fight, or punishing people for resisting a heinous regime, but the futility of being human, and the flaws we all have that an impact on the decisions we make and the way we act.

Translated books allow people who don’t speak the primary language of the author to read stories they may otherwise not get to engage with, and this is a bonus of having these books available. Some translations are exceptionally done, and capture the essence of the book, and as a reader, you can get a sense of the movement of the story. The Sixteen Trees of the Somme achieves this, and through a serious a sombre tone, communicated the desolation felt by Edvard and those whose stories and lives had shaped his.

Lars Mytting has created a story that crosses a century, and through the eyes of the main character, reveals how different people reacted to the history and to those they knew had been involved. The image at the beginning of a swastika on Bestefor’s car is indicative of wounds that have not healed, but that could also hint at remnants of other attitudes that were around during this time, and is just one example of the slow reveal techniques used in the novel, which did give it a slow pace, but it suited the story and style of the novel, and as such, I found it to be well written and engaging.

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The Inaugural Meeting of the Fairvale Ladies Book Club by Sophie Green

fairvale

Title: The Inaugural Meeting of the Fairvale Ladies Book Club

Author: Sophie Green

Genre: Fiction

Publisher: Hachette Australia

Published: 8th August, 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 427

Price: Paperback – $29.99, Ebook – $12.99, Audiobook – $44.99

Synopsis: In 1978 the Northern Territory has begun to self-govern. Cyclone Tracy is a recent memory and telephones not yet a fixture on the cattle stations dominating the rugged outback. Life is hard and people are isolated. But they find ways to connect. Sybil is the matriarch of Fairvale Station, run by her husband, Joe. Their eldest son, Lachlan, was Joe’s designated successor but he has left the Territory – for good. It is up to their second son, Ben, to take his brother’s place. But that doesn’t stop Sybil grieving the absence of her child. With her oldest friend, Rita, now living in Alice Springs and working for the Royal Flying Doctor Service, and Ben’s English wife, Kate, finding it difficult to adjust to life at Fairvale, Sybil comes up with a way to give them all companionship and purpose: they all love to read, and she forms a book club. Mother-of-three Sallyanne is invited to join them. Sallyanne dreams of a life far removed from the dusty town of Katherine where she lives with her difficult husband, Mick. Completing the group is Della, who left Texas for Australia looking for adventure and work on the land.

If you loved THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL PIE SOCIETY, THE LITTLE COFFEE SHOP OF KABUL and THE THORN BIRDS you will devour this story of five different women united by one need: to overcome the vast distances of Australia’s Top End with friendship, tears, laughter, books and love.

~*~

aww2017-badgeThe Inaugural Meeting of the Fairvale Ladies Bookc Club begins in 1978 and ends in 1981, each year beginning with a list of significant national and international events in each year. The novel first introduces the reader to the five women that will make up the book club: Sybil Baxter, her good friend, Rita, daughter-in-law, Kate, Della, who works as a stock hand on a neighbouring property, Ghost River, and who has moved over from Texas for adventure, and mother of three, Sallyanne, looking for a way to connect with people and struggling with her husband at home. Sybil’s idea for the book club springs from a desire to talk and connect, and her desire to find Kate friends in this new and harsh environment the young English woman finds herself in. And so, the idea for the book club is formed, and she goes in search of other members besides her, Kate and Rita. A chance meeting at the local CWA meeting in Katherine with Sallyanne, mother of three, and looking for connections, brings the women together to form the book club, and with the addition of Della from Ghost River, they embark on a journey of friendship, forming relationships and connections that give them the strength to face the challenges that life and living in the Territory throw at them. From the death to love found, love lost and even just finding your own strength, this book is about the bonds of family and friendship, and how these can be tested, and how far someone will go before they find themselves having to make what feels like an impossible choice.

Each character’s sense of self and individuality sings through the pages, especially in the chapters told from their perspective. Sybil, the Fairvale matriarch, challenged by the farm and the son who ran away and wants nothing to do with his family, soldiers on through the wet and dry seasons, pushing onwards through tragedy and always at hand to listen to her friends and family, with a cup of tea and keen ear. Rita, her friend and nurse with the Royal Flying Doctor’s Service is unmarried, without children and dedicated to her career – aspects of her character that suit her, the time but also, are in stark contrast to the way the women in the book club have been brought up in their respective families – the expectation of marriage and family has not been something that Rita has aimed for. In this way, she contrasts with Sybil, who is married with grown children, but who is also a woman of the land, who can hold her own in many ways, but must learn how to run Fairvale following a tragedy.

The trio of younger women couldn’t be more different: Della from Texas, who dreams of adventure, and isn’t expecting an invitation to join a book club, nor does she expect to fall in love with Stan, who works on Fairvale. Kate, Ben’s wife from England, wasn’t prepared for the harsh life of the Northern Territory, but longs for a child, and company, and the book club brings her closer to a few of the women around whose friendship will never die. Finally, mother of three, Sallyanne, stuck in a world of children and a difficult husband, is welcomed into the book club. A romantic at heart, longing for the type of love that they read about, begins to come out of her shell and finds her own strength with the help of Rita and the others.

Each character faces a tragedy of sorts in the book that tests their strength and passion, and the crux of who they are. Whatever these tragedies are, the Fairvale women come out stronger and closer than they were before. Through reading the books, a variety of Australian classics and one or two from America and England, that were readily available at the time, and the discussion of these books is what eventually leads to the bonds the women form that can never be broken. The books Sophie Green’s characters read are:

The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough

Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford

Picnic At Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay

The Far Pavilions by MM Kaye

The Harp in the South by Ruth Parks

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin

A Woman of Substance by Barbara Taylor Bradford

Sophie Green’s novel gives these women a voice – each very different, but reading it, I could hear Della’s voice just as clearly as the Australian ones, and Sophie uses dialect and language that each character would use to ensure the strength of these characters. Within Fairvale, there are Aboriginal workers, and their struggles against racism and falling in love with a white girl are shown, and dealt with eloquently – highlighting that just because racial and gender equality laws were brought into being during these years and the years that preceded them and followed, issues of racism, for example, have not completely vanished from our world. Stan and Ruby, who work in the kitchen, are wonderful characters, whom I came to adore and wish I knew. Like the book club women, they had such big hearts that they opened up to Della and Kate, and the other women. I think this was all done well, and written to suit the attitudes of the time that still prevailed, and at times, even today, still do. But these weren’t the focus of the book, and at least gave some context to the setting and characters. It allowed the Territory to become a character through the wet and dry seasons, and the people who lived on the land and shared it, working together for their families. I think the ending was realistic – with each member finding their own path and new life, where some aspects were left open ended, so it was probably more of a hopeful ending than a happy one.

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It is a book I enjoyed reading, and one I would like to revisit. The power in this is the way gender and race expectations are turned on their head, and the few that act superior based on race or gender, or both, are called out, but the hurt is still there, the scars are still there. It gives, I think, a realistic approach to the relationships the characters are in, whether it is family, friends or love, and through reading the books, which is the focus and backbone of the novel, and therefore is something that I think many readers who enjoy this kind of book will be able to relate to.

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2017 Australian Women Writer’s Challenge Update

aww2017-badge

a-waltz-for-matildaOn the first of January this year, I embarked on a reading challenge. That challenge was to read as many books by Australian women as possible, and at the beginning of the year, I made a list from books I had that I wanted to read, and came to about six, and so decided to take on the middle level – Miles – to read six books and review four. At the time, I was unsure of exactly how many I would read, and so chose this instead of Creating my Own Challenge and nominating a goal. I had no idea that I would be able to read more than four times my chosen goal by the beginning of August, juggling other review books as well, and trying to read across a broad range of genres.

if-blood-should-stain-the-wattlefairvaleAs at the second of August, I have read thirty books, and hope to read many more by year’s end, but I am not sure how many that will be. It could be ten, it could be twenty, I could even double or triple my goal – depending on what I read and how long it takes me, as some books have taken me a little longer than others, and some have been series, in particular, I began the year by working my way through The Matilda Saga by Jackie French within the first couple of months of the year, a six book saga beginning in 1894 with twelve year old Matilda O’Halloren and working through almost a century, taking the titles from well known bush poetry by poets such as Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson, but positioning the stories through the eyes of the women in various to-love-a-sunburnt-countrylooking for rose patersontimes of turbulence and upheaval in Australia: 1894 to just after Federation, with the formation of unions, moves towards federation and women’s suffrage in A Waltz For Matilda, post World War One with the Girl From Snowy River, who despite all odds, saves the valley and gets the horses to safety, a Depression-era circus in The Road to Gundagai, where a young girl escapes from those who would do her harm, and finds a family who cares and nurses her back to health. In book four, To Love A Sunburnt Country, the story enters World War Two, and is told from Nancy’s perspective, a young part Aboriginal girl whose family has always lived and worked on Drinkwater. Books five and six are told in a few perspectives, during the sixties and seventies, during Vietnam and the moon landing. Matilda, Drinkwater and how women are perceived in society through each of these decades and the rights they fight for link the saga and with book seven due out later this year, I am eager to see where we get to go post-1975.

stars across the oceanFollowing this, I have read a variety of historical fiction, flying too highfantasy, Young Adult, general fiction and romance, ranging from ones that felt over the top and extremely clichéd to those that had more essence and plot than just the couple falling in love at first sight. Two of these, Girl in Between and The Hating Game, a Bridget Jones feel to them, and thus made them more enjoyable and a little more realistic, as the characters were not perfect. This challenge has brought me books I might not have ordinarily picked up and in doing so, has introduced me to new areas of interest but also determined what I prefer and what I don’t like.

my lovely frankieAs part of this challenge, I have also been writing articles on small presses: Pantera Press, Magabala Books, UWA Press, The Author People, Serenity Press, Odyssey Books (yet to be published on Australian Women Writer’s Challenge), Xoum, and Transit Lounge, all of the links have been provided here. I have enjoyed image004doing this, especially contacting some of the publishers. Those who have been rather enthusiastic about the challenge have been Odyssey Books, Serenity Press and The Author People.

BeautyinThorns_Cover

One of the highlights so far has had to be getting to be part of the blog tour for Kate Forsyth’s Beauty in Thorns. I always enjoy Kate’s books, and she writes so exquisitely that it is easy to get lost in her worlds and words. I have been trying to read more crime, and one series I would like to read again is Sulari Gentill’s Rowland Sinclair, though I have already reviewed those so they will be on my read but not reviewed list when I do so.

Below are the books I have read so far. Most have been fiction, with one collection of short stories and one non-fiction so far, and I am hoping to expand on these two areas as I go:

  1. A Waltz For Matilda (Matilda Saga #1) by Jackie French
  2. The Girl From Snowy River (Matilda Saga #3) by Jackie French
  3. The Road to Gundagai (Matilda Saga #3) by Jackie French
  4. To Love A Sunburnt Country (Matilda Saga #4) by Jackie French
  5. New York Nights by CJ Duggan
  6. Country Roads by Nicole Hurley-Moore
  7. The Ghost By The Billabong (Matilda Saga #5) by Jackie French
  8. If Blood Should Stain The Wattle (Matilda Saga #6) by Jackie French
  9. The Last McAdam by Holly Ford
  10. From the Wreck by Jane Rawson
  11. Draekora (Medoran Chronicles #3_ by Lynette Noni
  12. London Bound by CJ Duggan
  13. Looking for Rose Paterson: How Family Bush Life Nurtured Banjo the Poet
  14. See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt
  15. Flying Too High by Kerry Greenwood
  16. The Blue Cat by Ursula Dubosarsky
  17. The Song of Us by JD Barrett
  18. Singing My Sister Down and other stories by Margo Lanagan
  19. Stars Across the Ocean by Kimberley Freema
  20. Murder on the Ballarat Train (Phryne Fisher #3) by Kerry Greenwood
  21. Girl In Between by Anna Daniels
  22. The Lost Pages by Marija Peričić
  23. Beauty in the Thorns by Kate Forsyth
  24. The Dream Walker by Victoria Carless
  25. My Lovely Frankie by Judith Clarke
  26. Death At Victoria Dock By Kerry Greenwood (Phryne Fisher #4)
  27. Leaving Ocean Road by Esther Campion
  28. The Inaugural Meeting of the Fairvale Ladies Book Club by Sophie Green – post scheduled to go up next week.
  29. Siren by Rachel Matthews
  30. A Reluctant Warrior by Kelly Brooke Nicholls

This challenge is about reading books by Australian Women, often with strong female characters in them, but not always about Australia. It is a way that participants can work to raise the profile of Australian Women Writer’s, and of writers in general in Australia. The writing and publishing industry in Australia isn’t as big as it might be overseas, but it is none the less just as important to be able to read stories by Australian authors and for Australians all throughout the country to be able to see themselves reflected in the literature that they pick up.

I have been trying to read broadly, and this is only thirty of the seventy books I had read this year. I am hoping that the next few months will bring more variety and surprises. My complete write up for the entire challenge will be available early January 2018.

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A Reluctant Warrior by Kelly Brooke Nicholls – Book Review and Launch Write Up

A-Reluctant-Warrior-Kelly-Brooke-Nicholls-1-265x400Title: A Reluctant Warrior

Author: Kelly Brooke Nicholls

Genre: Fiction, Political Thriller

Publisher: The Author People

Published: 28th of June, 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 232

Price: $26.99

Synopsis:
When Luzma’s brother Jair unwittingly uncovers the plan by Colombia’s most notorious drug cartel to smuggle an unprecedented cocaine shipment into the US, it puts their family in grave danger.

Jair’s kidnapping by the cartel, forces Luzma to go face to face with vicious paramilitary leader, El Cubano, and General Ordonez, ruthless head of the military – men who will stop at nothing to protect their empires. But for Luzma, nothing is more important than saving her family – not even her own life.

While the story and characters in A Reluctant Warrior are fictitious, they are based on events Kelly Brooke Nicholls witnessed first-hand while living and working in Colombia. During this time, she interviewed thousands of victims of paramilitaries, guerrilla and drug cartels. She knows Buenaventura, where the novel is set, intimately, including the most notorious neighborhoods where foreigners rarely venture. She worked closely with the former Andean Director of the Drug Enforcement Administration to help her realistically map the events in this novel.

Now her gripping novel of one young woman’s terrifying encounter with Colombia’s most notorious drug cartel gives readers a rare glimpse into Colombia’s drug wars and their impact on ordinary citizens.

~*~

aww2017-badgeA Reluctant Warrior by Kelly Brooke Nicholls is, at its heart, a story about people, and a story worth telling. It is Luzma’s (Luz-Marina Cuesto) of standing up to the cartels, paramilitary and guerrillas in Colombia after her brother, Jair, is kidnapped after inadvertently getting caught up with them and seeing and hearing things he shouldn’t, and the entire plot covers about two weeks of searching for him, and trying to face up to the cartels that ravage the nation and city of Buenaventura. Luzma is yanked unwillingly into the war against drugs and the cartels after Jair disappears and her family is threatened. Working with an American, Rafa, and his contacts in the DEA to find Jair, and capture El Cubano, Luzma also hopes to prevent a shipment of drugs reaching the United States, and will put her life and humanity on the line to do so.

Luzma’s story is a powerful one, and one that needs to be told, because we do not hear enough about what goes in in Colombia, and the drug trade, and related human rights abuses, where people like El Cubano think, feel and say that they can do what they want, when they want, how they want and to whoever they want – because who is going to stop them? This attitude strikes right to the heart of the novel and reveals what ordinary people have to deal with, or turn a blind eye to the goings on if they want to stay alive. It was Luzma’s stubborn drive that kept her going, something that at times, could be frustrating, yet at the same time, showed her determination and strength, and her ability to fight back and fight for what mattered: her family.

Stories like this need to be told – even in a fictional format, because doing so reveals a world that many probably don’t realise exists, or maybe they do and they feel powerless. Luzma’s story gives the people in the situation she finds herself in a voice, and Kelly constructed this voice through interviews with Afro-Colombians like Luzma caught up in the conflict, caught up in trafficking and human rights abuses, and through these very real people, both in Colombia and the DEA, has written an authentic story that is both moving and terrifying in equal parts. It is a story that highlights the inequalities in the world, and the inequalities and abuses throughout history that have brought the characters to where they are in the story, and why they are the way they are. Why some fight, and some turn a blind eye. Why some feel they can take what they want without consequences, and why some are caught in between, scared of the cartels, and wanting to keep their heads down, but at the same time, when push comes to shove, showing their loyalty and willingness to put themselves in dangerous positions.

Though the DEA and other federal agencies become involved. Luzma, and the man who starts helping her at the start, Rafael, are the driving force behind the fight. Luzma is strong, stubborn and determined, but when it comes to her brother, Jair, shows a vulnerability that she winds up using to her benefit to find Jair and towards the end of the novel. Throughout the novel, the human cost of this hidden, not often spoken about war is shown in a myriad of ways.

I can see why this took Kelly almost a decade to write. The amount of research, through interviews and reading, and travel that she did would have taken a considerable amount of time, and constructing the story into what it became certainly would have taken a decent amount of time to achieve the emotional impact that it has on the reader.

A fantastically written novel about issues not often spoken about, but that need to be. I now know a lot more about Colombia and the cartels than I did, and the story is enhanced by Kelly’s own experiences in Colombia that were the impetus and trigger for this story.

ABOUT KELLY

Kelly Brooke Nicholls’ fascination with other cultures was instilled in her early years growing up on a boat in the south pacific islands. She’s been passionate about human rights from an early age and following a stint as a journalist at Australian Associated Press she moved to Latin America when she was 23. From there she was compelled to make a difference and help people affected by conflict, abuse and extreme poverty. She has over 15 years’ senior leadership experience working for NGOs ranging from Medecins Sans Frontieres/Doctors Without Borders to a small indigenous-led organisation in the Ecuadorian Amazon.

Her extensive time living and working in Colombia has left an indelible mark. She has travelled extensively to places few foreigners have been, researching and documenting the impact of the ongoing war on ordinary citizens and the horrendous human rights abuses inflicted on them.

Kelly wrote her novel A Reluctant Warrior to help shine a light on the way ordinary Colombian citizens have suffered and continue to suffer, despite the advancement in the Peace Agreement. But more than that, she wrote this book to celebrate, support and amplify the message of the brave people who risk their lives to protect and make a difference to others.

Kelly strongly believes that everyone has the ability to make a difference in the world and bring about positive change, and has spent her life helping people achieve that.

Kelly lives on the Northern Beaches of Sydney with her Colombian husband and two sons.

A Reluctant Warrior Book Launch: Gleebooks, 30th June, 2017

 

Just over a month ago, I attended the book launch of A Reluctant Warrior by special invitation of Kelly herself, and was able to arrive earlier to chat with her publisher, Lou Johnson from The Author People. At the beginning of the year, I responded to a job advertisement from Kelly, seeking a Publishing Intern who could work from home to research various places to feature reviews of the book, interviews with Kelly and general websites of interest in relation to Colombia and Latin America for potential readers. It was because of this work that I received the invitation, and so, headed down to Gleebooks at the end of June to attend the launch.

At the launch, Kelly and Lou sat up the front of the function area and chatted about the book, and the inspiration behind the book – in their words, a unique read, and one that Kelly was inspired, and compelled to write after her work in Colombia. She was overwhelmed by the violence she saw – and found herself asking: how do people get to that level of violence? In contrast, she saw those who stood up to the violence – human rights defenders, ordinary people, risking their lives – it was these people that inspired the character of Luzma, and that helped to make the story as accurate and authentic as possible.

For Kelly, the story came before the compulsion to tell it, and in doing so, she feels she has given a voice to the voiceless and the human rights defenders and victims of the fifty-two year conflict that we hear so little about in Australia. At the launch, Kelly said writing this story was about getting people to care, and she wrote it so that anyone could pick it up and read it, leaving it open at the end to ask questions about what might happen next.

Kelly’s discussion about what Colombia, and the port city where the story is set is like cemented the image in the story – from the ramshackle houses that were slapped together, to the constant disappearances and recruitment of young children, to the inability of people to escape, all came together in A Reluctant Warrior and provided a background to the story, and allowed for immersion – all depicted in the novel as it was when Kelly was in Colombia.

This talk at the launch gave greater insight into the book, and as I was reading it over the past few days, doing so after attending the launch made making the connections with Kelly’s personal story and the fictional story more powerful, and allowed me to appreciate it more, even though Kelly and I had previously met and discussed the book and her experiences, hearing more about them gave more strength to the story I have just read.

Following Kelly’s talk with Lou about the book, I was able to chat with Lou about writing and publishing, and it was a fairly busy even – about fifty people were in attendance for the talk and to get their books signed. It was the first book launch I have ever really attended and was a little nervous about meeting Lou, who is such a lovely and generous person who has been helping me to make contacts in the industry I want to work in. People came and went after Kelly and Lou had had their chat, so I didn’t stay for the entire launch as Dad and I had to get back to the Central Coast, but it was a lovely evening and Gleebooks has a fantastic space for a book launches and author events upstairs, with a divine selection of books to choose from.

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Siren by Rachel Matthews

Siren_cover-for-publicity-600x913.jpgTitle: Siren

Author: Rachel Matthews

Genre: Fiction

Publisher: Transit Lounge

Published: 1st August 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 288

Price: $29.95

Synopsis: A brave new novel that sensitively explores one woman’s experience of sexual violence and the silencing of those who feel compelled to speak out.

What happens when a young woman enters a city apartment early morning, with two footballers? Jordi Spence is sixteen years old and lives in outer Melbourne. By daybreak, her world has shifted. Max Carlisle, a troubled AFL star, can’t stop what comes next. And Ruby, a single woman from the apartment block, is left with questions when she sees Jordi leave.

In this remarkable novel, Rachel Matthews captures the characters of Jordi and her family, the players, and the often loveable inhabitants of a big city with a deceptive lightness of touch that seduces the reader. Siren reveals the often unnoticed life of a city while simultaneously drawing us deep into a dark and troubling world. What happens has an unexpected effect on all those who are both directly and indirectly involved.

The result is a powerful and haunting novel about cultural stereotypes and expectations, love, loneliness, family and our struggle to connect. In so many ways, Matthews subtly sounds the siren on sexual violence and its prevalence in our culture.

~*~

aww2017-badgeIt is rare to come across a novel that tackles concepts and issues that are rarely brought into the light, unless it becomes a major story that hits the news. In Siren, Rachel Matthews tells the story of Jordi, a teenager victimised by an AFL star, who would have all the power of a club and community behind him, and the privilege of money and standing in society that can and is, in some instances, used to silence victims and those without power and influence. Where the AFL player in question would have had the best defence he could afford, Jordi is silenced, alone, and feeling like she can’t turn to anyone, not even her mother. The witnesses are silenced too: the roommate of the AFL player, Max Carlisle, who knows what happened, and is consumed by fear, and torn between the desire to do the right thing, and the idea that he needs to protect the brand of the AFL, and ensure that nothing tarnishes it, even when a crime has been committed. And Ruby, the single woman in the same apartment building, who will encourage Max to speak out, or to try to, is caught up in this web of silence as well.

It is a web of silence that affects everyone, except the perpetrator, and it is this culture of silence and exploitation that forms the basis of the novel, complementing Jordi’s struggle, which is front and centre. It examines the culture of blaming the victim and questioning their role in the violence, whether it is sexual or domestic. By placing the story of Jordi front and centre, and showing how powerless even those who are in positions where they might be listened to are as well, Siren eloquently relates the gritty reality of sexual violence against young women. It has a sense of discomfort throughout the novel, because as a reader, you know Jordi is the victim and isn’t to blame, the doctor at the clinic urging her to report knows, and the witnesses know, and yet, everyone who can help, is unable to without Jordi saying so, or because they feel silenced by the community they are a part of.

Told in third person and moving between the perspective of Jordi and those who were unwitting witnesses, including the homeless woman Max befriended, whose concern for Jordi and finding out what had happened to her over her own health and living situation. Jordi’s home life isn’t perfect, with her father off all the time, and her mother’s current boyfriend isn’t great, and even her mother isn’t always there for her, but begins to change her tune, casting the boyfriend aside when she realises Jordi is struggling and does everything she can to get her daughter to open up, but is also afraid to speak out, to say what she fears has happened out loud. Jordi is ashamed, and doesn’t want anyone to know, but she feels like she is drowning, and the witnesses who feel compelled to speak out are equally silenced by their own fears and doubts, or by those of those around them, and the threats they might face – whether from those they know or the community at large, and the desire to bury the issues of domestic and sexual assault and violence behind closed doors, because there are those who would rather not acknowledge it.

The culture of silence is depicted cleverly through the actions of each character, and the way they think and respond. It is shown through the decisions Jordi makes and about who she tells and doesn’t tell, about what she does and doesn’t do and about the assumptions made towards the end of the novel, and the sense that I got whilst reading it that things could go wrong and might not be resolved.

Dealing with uncomfortable issues in literature is a good way to get attention on these issues, and out into the broader community. Sometimes media stories don’t give the full impact and only tell part of the story, or tell a narrative they want to. In a book, many facets can combine to show various sides of the story, but at the same time, illustrate that the privileged notion of victim blaming and being able to get away with something due to power and money – I felt this was what Rachel Matthews was suggesting in the story – can be shattered and broken down, and therefore discussed and ideas surrounding sexual and domestic violence that appear to put the responsibility on the victim can begin to be broken down.

It is not an easy read by any stretch of the imagination and I don’t think it is meant to be easy and light. It is meant to be dark, and gritty and confrontational. Not only is the reader confronted by sexual assault and domestic violence, but by homelessness, and class divide, and the assumptions people make based on these characteristics and others, without getting the full story. It does not sanitise any of these experiences either, and combined, these make it an important book to read, even if you only read it once, it is a story that will stay with you, niggling at the back of your mind whenever these stories come up in the media. Rachel Matthews acknowledges these issues and writes about them in an in-your-face style that ensures the reader is unlikely to forget too quickly.

A powerful story that needs to be told, and is told without any sugar coating of the issues.

Tell It To The Dog: A Memoir of Sorts by Robert Power

Tell-it-to-the-Dog_cover-for-publicity-600x913.jpgTitle: Tell It To The Dog: A Memoir of Sorts

Author: Robert Power

Genre: Non-Fiction/Memoir

Publisher: Transit Lounge

Published: 1st July 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 224

Price: $29.95

Synopsis: Tell it to the Dog is an exquisitely written memoir that is at once playful, heartbreaking and affirming. From a Dublin childhood to London, then on to Europe, to Asia and Australia, there is a deep engagement with the world in this book about growing up, about human and animal connectedness, about friendship, love and loss. Power understands the uncanniness and endurance of memory. He can make us laugh, and then stop us in our tracks at the profundity of this business of meeting life. Each of these short chapters is beautifully complete; together the whole thing shimmers. In the most delightful and subtle of ways, the language, trajectory and wisdom of Tell it to the Dog underscores our need to embrace our own vulnerabilities, to confront our experiences and memories, and to believe as Jane Austen once wrote, that ‘when pain is over, the remembrance of it often becomes a pleasure’.

 

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Tell It To The Dog is one of those books that is very niche and is written, I feel, with a very particular or specific audience in mind. Tell It To The Dog begins with the author recounting the day he adopted a dog, and then it slithers into reflections on his time in Lhasa before heading into short chapters that recount a single event or memory of the author’s life, or a story about a person. The disconnect between each of these short chapters, especially in the early parts of this six segmented book were confusing and often left me wondering how it all fit together – as a memoir, or as the cover states, a memoir of sorts, I found it hard to follow at times, and when I’d come to an interesting story, it would just stop, and I’d never get anymore of that particular story or event, which to me felt dissatisfying though it may appeal to other readers.

 

Tell It To The Dog traverses a life lived in Dublin, London, across Asia, Europe and Australia. In some places, there is a definite sense of place, in a specific city, or a specific place in a city, though in others, as a reader, I felt lost, not knowing where I was, or where the author was going. This contrast in how place was presented, though something I felt took away from the book, was one way Robert Power showed the fragmented nature of memory, and how our minds can play tricks on us.

 

For me as a reader, it took most of the book before I could see some connections being made, although some fragments of story were never resolved, left hanging at the end of a rope, swinging in the air without purpose, and lost to the reader. It was at a couple of these points that I felt very confused – something rare with reading a book for me, so I think it was the style and format it had been written in. As I got to the end of the book, and into the final two parts, some things started to make sense, and the final part read more as a meditation on the writing journey. Whether it was meant to reference the writing journey in general, and how some writers can experience it, the author’s writing journey, or both, I couldn’t discern this, and still found some of these chapters confusing, but some had a bit of interest in them.

 

Even though this wasn’t a book I completely enjoyed, I did read to the end before making my judgement, and to see if any of the first stories found connections in the later ones to help make sense of the story. It is an interesting way of writing a memoir, and not one that works for me as a reader or writer, but I do think this book might find an audience, even if it is a small one, there will be someone who might enjoy this story. It’s just not me.

 

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Beauty in Thorns by Kate Forsyth

BeautyinThorns_CoverTitle: Beauty in Thorns

Author: Kate Forsyth

Genre: Historical Fiction

Publisher: Penguin Random House/Vintage

Published: 3rd of July 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 465

Price: $32.99

Synopsis: A spellbinding reimagining of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ set amongst the wild bohemian circle of Pre-Raphaelite artists and poets.

The Pre-Raphaelites were determined to liberate art and love from the shackles of convention. 

Ned Burne-Jones had never had a painting lesson and his family wanted him to be a parson. Only young Georgie Macdonald – the daughter of a Methodist minister – understood. She put aside her own dreams to support him, only to be confronted by many years of gossip and scandal.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti was smitten with his favourite model, Lizzie Siddal. She wanted to be an artist herself, but was seduced by the irresistible lure of laudanum. 

William Morris fell head-over-heels for a ‘stunner’ from the slums, Janey Burden. Discovered by Ned, married to William, she embarked on a passionate affair with Gabriel that led inexorably to tragedy.

Margot Burne-Jones had become her father’s muse. He painted her as Briar Rose, the focus of his most renowned series of paintings, based on the fairy-tale that haunted him all his life. Yet Margot longed to be awakened to love. 

Bringing to life the dramatic true story of love, obsession and heartbreak that lies behind the Victorian era’s most famous paintings, Beauty in Thorns is the story of awakenings of all kinds.

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aww2017-badgeKate Forsyth’s fortieth novel, Beauty in Thorns reimagines the Sleeping Beauty fairy tail, using the well-known version of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, and the world of the Pre-Raphaelite artists and poets working to free art from the conventional prison that the Victorian world tried to isolate and suffocate it in. The stories of Ned Burne-Jones and his wife, Georgie, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and his many affairs and obsession with model Lizzie Siddal, William Morris, and Ned Burne-Jones’s daughter were all caught up in this life of perfecting art and the paintings of Briar Rose, and the betrayal of lovers and husbands, rushing into the arms of muses who wished to tear them away from their families. The lives are tragic and romantic, hopeful and realistic, showing the depths and flaws of these characters.

Sweeping across the latter half of the nineteenth century, we meet Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Morris, and New Burne-Jones as they enter the art world and find models for their paintings, and they fall in love and out of love. Rossetti’s favourite model, Lizzie Siddal, falls ill during a sitting and following her illness, becomes addicted to laudanum and uses her addiction to the drug and obsession to pull Rossetti towards her, and their tragic relationship faces many ups and downs, the final tragedy striking suddenly and harshly amongst the group of friends and lovers.

Whilst the men painted and had their works exhbited and commissioned, the women wrote poetry and painted too, with Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s sister, Christina, author of poems such as Goblin Market, making a few appearances, and other authors, such as Rudyard Kipling, appearing as infants, part of one of the families, and eventually, as Kate_Forsythadults in the world of art and poetry their parents raised them in. Lizzie, Georgie, Janey and the other models share in their jealousy of each other, and desire to have the men they love to themselves, but they are more than that – they wish to be recognised in their own right as artists and poets, not just wives and mothers, or lovers and models. Beauty in Thorns is a novel full of complex characters whose desires in all aspects of their lives drive them, and influence the decisions they make. I found Georgie and Ned’s story to be the most hopeful – they stayed together through thick and thin, and Georgie didn’t sacrifice her sense of self to become a wife and mother. It is a story of women who fit into their time period, but at the same time, step out of the conventions they were born into and forge their own paths, sometimes separate from the men in their lives, sometimes alongside them, and at times, they do both, creating intrigue within the plot, pulling the reader along towards the conclusion of a story filled with tragedy at times, but hope at others.

Each peripheral character impacted dynamics too, and the group was shaken at times of death and tragedy, but pulled through, showing the strength of family and friendship, not just romantic love in the Pre-Raphaelite community. Even the well-known authors mentioned by name or who make brief appearances such as Rudyard Kipling bring an interest to the story, and cement the setting with mention of their works and inspirations, perhaps hinting at other possible stories to be told. I was unaware of Rudyard Kipling’s familial link to the Pre-Raphaelites prior to reading this, and I hope to be able to look further into it, and read his works, and Christina Rossetti’s works, in a new light.

Beauty in Thorns is a book of beauty, from the cover to the story and characters within. It weaves a magic spell around the reader, and using the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, there are hints as to who the Sleeping Beauty of the Pre-Raphaelites was: Was it Lizzie Siddal, perfect even in death? Or Margot Burne-Jones, her father’s muse, and the child he desired to keep at home, young and innocent, free from the heartbreak of love that he and his friends had experienced? Or is it both, Lizzie sleeping, Margot awake, yet feeling as though she isn’t, and longing for love to awaken her? Having read the novel, I think both are Sleeping Beauty in a way, and Kate Forsyth has conveyed this through beautiful language and imagery that flows delightfully across the page and envelops the reader as though in a warm, comforting blanket.

In each of her books, Kate Forsyth works magic with her words, weaving a spell around characters – whether inspired by real people, imagined or a fictional yet believable image of a historical figure, artist or poet – and creating a world to escape into. Her historical fiction is exceptionally well researched, and Beauty in Thorns is no exception. Using history and fairy tales as inspiration, Kate Forsyth has created a world that I didn’t want to leave, and a book that I wanted to savour yet devour at the same time. I ended up devouring it in two days, as I often do with her books. This is usually the sign of a good book for me, and an intriguing story that combined many themes of family, love, friendship and tragedy, much like The Beast’s Garden, which I am hoping to read again this year.

Another exceptional novel from one of Australia’s favourite storytellers, a true master of the story, Kate Forsyth, Beauty in Thorns is sure to appeal to lovers of historical fiction, fairy tales and Kate’s other works. I look forward to her future novels as well.

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