Book Review: Metal Fish, Falling Snow by Cath Moore

Fourteen year old Dylan lives in a tiny outback town. Her absent dad was black and her mum is a white French lady. The two of them dream of one sailing across the ocean to France. When her mother dies in a tragic accident, Dylan is left with her mum’s boyfriend, Pat, a man with a bit of a gambling habit.

I felt sick all through the funeral. Pat had put Mum in the dress she’d worn when they first met. Made it all about him, and I felt thunder in my chest. Death is like the last glass of milk when there is no more in the fridge and the shop is closed ’cause it’s late Sunday arvo

After a flurry of mysterious phone calls the grieving pair set off on a road trip across outback Australia to a destination unknown to Dylan. People keep asking Dylan where she’s from because her skin is the wrong color.

Out here with Pat in the middle of nowhere, I wonder if all these other gum trees are safekeeping secrets too. Maybe there are stories deep down inside the roots or buried between layers of bark.

Dylan has a very specific way of seeing the world. She likes forks and Tina Arena and water. She doesn’t like bad parking or the wolf that lives inside her. She eats white before green and often finds herself in other people’s dreams.

The air is filled with Pat’s other memories trying to be heard. Some fall into the fire, they screech out with pain as they die. Others make a run for it hoping Pat will forget about them all together. One of them dances over the fire and flickers into my dreams.

On the road trip Dylan’s anger and grief get her and Pat into all sorts of strife, but an unlikely bond forms between the pair. Until Dylan realises their destination.

When we are shelling peas for Friday night fritters, all you can hear is pop pop pop! Little peas tumbling into the bowl just like Mum and me used to do, and that was nice, finding a memory in something small and green.

Told in the first person, Dylan’s voice is unique, imaginative and lyrical. Metal Fish, Falling Snow is an emotional journey about grief, friendship, identity, family, coming of age, resilience, and internalised racism. The intensity of the subject matter is lightened by a good dose of magical realism and Dylan’s unique lens on the world.

Born in Guyana and raised in Australia, Cath Moore is of Irish/Afro-Caribbean heritage. Metal Fish, Falling Snow is the screenwriters debut novel. Highly recommended reading,

Book review: Ash Mountain by Helen Fitzgerald

Ash Mountain by Helen Fitzgerald is domestic noir meets disaster thriller – dark, tragic and funny.

Fran Collins returns to the Australian small country town she grew up in to care for her sick father, reluctant teenage daughter in tow for the weekends.

Ash Mountain is full of childhood memories – Fran’s son from a teenage pregnancy, old friends and rivals, and dark secrets in the seminary – all of which return to haunt her at the same time as she is falling in love. The attraction to her love interest, the Captain, is complicated by the fact that their daughters are also forming a budding relationship.

The story is set against the backdrop of a scorching summer in the days leading up to a cataclysmic bushfire as one timeline, and events from thirty years earlier in another. The claustrophobic small town setting and the knowledge of the pending doomsday bushfire keep the tension cranked, and the narration by a prickly resentful middle aged woman brings plenty of droll humour to the table.

If, like me you live in a bushfire prone are, I recommend reading it in winter.

Lockdown Thrills

Melbourne is filling up with bandits, bushrangers and bankrobbers this week after the Premier made mask wearing mandatory.

Bruce Springsteen says the writing life is a mix of high anxiety and grandeur

When I can’t take the thrill of lockdown life any more, I’ve been tuning into ThrillerFest, and it’s a hoot. Usually held in New York, the event was forced online this year by the pandemic. I bought tickets to the CraftFest and CareerFest parts of the program.

CraftFest is a thrilling feast of thriller writers.When I logged into the online site with my secret password I discovered about one hundred author video discussions brimming with ideas, hints, tips and motivation for writing.

I’m a pantser until I need to be a plotter and a plotter until I need to be a pantser

CareerFest contains five additional videos that take you behind the scenes to advice from top authors and publishing experts about pitching, publishing and brand.

The best news is you can still get tickets and access the videos for at least six months. It’s one activity you can do without wearing a mask, and I think it will see me through lockdown. My favourite piece of advice so far is:

How do you get that shit done when you work full time …. Because I’m sitting here writing on my phone, not playing angry birds.

Book review: All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

Award winning All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews is a story of sisters, grief, and loss, told with an extraordinary sense of humour that makes the despair on the page readable. The novel explores the effect of growing up in a strict, closed religious community, the conflicting desires for life and death, the flawed and sometimes indifferent mental health care system, and the effect a family members mental health crisis can have on their loved ones.

Sisters Elfrieda and Yolanda grew up in the restricted confines of a Mennonite community in Canada in a family that indulged their rebellious daughters who strained against the communities restrictions.

Sometimes he referred to himself as a cowboy and these encounters as “mending fences.” But in reality it was more of a raid. He showed up on a Saturday in a convoy with his usual posse of elders, each in his own black, hard-topped car (they never carpool because it’s not as effective in creating terror when thirteen or fourteen similarly dressed men tumble out of one car) and my father and I watched from the window as they parked in front of our house and got out of their cars and walked slowly towards us, one behind the other, like a tired conga line.

Yoli grows up to be a divorced single mother and an author who writes YA books about rodeo romances. She carries around a plastic bag containing her latest manuscript – an attempt at a literary novel. Elf is a gifted and beautiful concert pianist who grows up to marry a loving man. She also wants to kill herself. The girls father committed suicide on a train track. Yoli, her mother and Elf’s husband dedicate themselves to keeping Elf alive, until Yoli starts to question that strategy and to search the internet for how to get hold of some Nembutal.

How are you doing? she asked me. Fine, fine, I said. I wanted to tell her that I felt I was dying from rage and that I felt guilty about everything and that when I was a kid I woke up every morning singing, that I couldn’t wait to leap out of bed and rush out of the house into the magical kingdom that was my world, that dust made visible in sunbeams gave me real authentic joy, that my sparkly golden banana-seated bike with the very high sissy bar took my breath away, the majesty of it, that it was mine, that there was no freer soul in the world than me at age nine, and that now I woke up every morning reminding myself that control is an illusion, taking deep breaths and counting to ten trying to ward off panic attacks and hoping that my own hands hadn’t managed to strangle me while I slept.

The story is told from the first person point of view of fortyish Yoli. The long rolling paragraphs pull the reader through the narrative, and the dialogue, which lacks quotation marks, makes you feel as if you are right inside Yoli’s head as she tells the story. It is a beautiful, sad, funnny and uniquely written book.

Book review: The Children’s Bach by Helen Garner

When I mentioned to a friend I had just read a great Helen Garner novella, they said they were conflicted because they love her writing, but couldn’t stand the person. Tongue in cheek, I said I didn’t know her personally so couldn’t comment on her character but thought her writing was beautiful. It was an interaction that sums Garner up quite well…both the woman and her work seem to attract controversy and elicit strong feelings.

‘Course I care. I always care. But there’s no point in making a song and dance about it, like that night he stayed here. Know something? There’s only one thing that’ll bring ’em back, and that’s indifference. The one thing you can’t fake.’
‘But you are faking it.’
‘At the moment I might be. But as soon as it stops being faked and starts being real, he’ll turn up. Rule number one of modern life.’

Beyond the personal satisfaction gained through the creative process of writing, we write with the hope that we will entertain, inspire, broaden horizons, challenge, or provoke, all outcomes which require the elicitation of emotions. It lends me to wonder then, whether Garner is not the personification of success if both the woman and her work can excite such polarised views.

The Children’s Bach (1984), Garners third published work, invites us into the 1980’s Melbourne suburban household of loving middle aged couple Athena and Dexter Fox who are united by their children, Billy who has autism and their a bright articulate son called Arthur. At its heart it is the story of a stable and caring couple’s life being interrupted by a the introduction of a disruptive influence. For Anthea (who is a bit suffocated by her own domesticity) and Dexter, it is the introduction into their orbit of Dexter’s old friend Elizabeth, her bohemian lover Philip and sister Vicki that fuel unrest.

‘She’s a frump,’ thought Elizabeth with relief; but Athena stepped forward and held out her hand, and Elizabeth saw the cleverly mended sleeve of her jumper and was suddenly not so sure.

Among the turmoil of relations between the adult characters, it is Billy who represents the manifestation of the parts of ourselves that are inaccessibility to others.

‘I used to be romantic about him,’ said Athena. ‘I used to think there was some kind of wild, good little creature trapped inside him, and I tried to communicate with that. But now I know there’s . . .’ (she knocked her forehead with her knuckles) ‘ . . .nobody home.’

Family, morals, ideals, and naivety are pitted against hedonism, freedom and independence. The Children’s Bach has been mooted as one of the best novels of the twentieth century and Garner is certainly a master of domestic drama, of female desire and the complexity of love and relationships. The point of view moves rapidly between the characters, and music, in which each of the actors finds a kind of solace, echoes through the book and lends a rhythm to Garners exquisite, precise, efficiently crafted, intimate and lyrical prose.

The novella was turned into an opera by Andrew Schultz as part of the Canberra International Music Festival in 2008. If we still have an arts sector post COVID-19 and the show is ever re-staged, I’ll definitely go and see it.

Book review: Missing Pieces by Caroline de Costa

Indigenous cop Cass Diamond is asked to help with an unusual missing person search. Wealthy businessman Andrew Todd died in 2012 and left directions in his will to search for a child, Yasmin Munoz, who went missing from a picnic spot near Cairns in 1992.

Whilst poking around, Cass discovers that in 1990 Todd’s daughter-in-law to be went missing from a Brisbane party thrown for her engagement. At the time police believed there was no link between the two events, but Cass has a hunch. The search leads Cass to a farm on the Atherton Tablelands and she becomes the victim of a kidnapping herself along with two other women.

Missing Pieces published by Wild Dingo Press, is the second novel in a series by Caroline de Costa and was shortlisted in the 2016 Davitt Awards. Set in Queensland it is great to see a strong, shrewd and feisty Aboriginal woman as the protagonist. Many twists and turns are woven through the story and it touches on a range of themes including single motherhood, politics, race and the environment.

For readers with a social conscience who like police procedurals.

Book review: Prey by LA Larkin

Olivia Wolfe is a larger than life, tough, gritty, tattooed, and heavily pierced investigative journalist in pursuit of a story after a corrupt British Cabinet Minister dies in strange circumstances. Wolfe ignores warnings to drop the story and the chase takes her to South Africa to a wildlife reserve set up to protect rhino’s from poachers.

On the isolated wildlife reserve Wolfe realises the sadistic psychopathic killer responsible for a number of bizzare and grisly murders has started to pursue her.

What follows is an action packed, fast-paced and gruesome tale of illegal poaching, the international trade in rhino horns, and money laundering by large corporations. The assassin wants to make Wolfe his most spectacular victim yet and leaves a trail of destruction in his pursuit. He is his own worst enemy though, as he likes to show off his handy work on the internet.

Wolfe is angry that the assasin killed her friend so rather than run she becomes unrelenting in her pursuit of the killer, and her mission to bringing justice to the people who hired him. I found the character of Wolfe had echoes of Lisbeth Salander from The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo.

Prey, published by Clan Destine Press, has a bit of the ’90’s espionage novel about it, brimming with corrupt officials, dodgy businessmen, and a network of online sadists running the illegal wildlife trade. Larkin takes her research seriously and spent time volunteering on patrol at wildlife reserves in Africa to prepare for writing the novel.

The short chapters set a cracking pace with plenty of twists and subplots. If you like action thriller suspense novels and a bit of gratuitous violence, I recommend you read the first in the series to begin with. I started with Prey which is book #2 in the series and it took me a while to get into as I didn’t get the references to Devour, the first in the series.

If you prefer gentler pursuits Larkin also writes cosy mysteries with a dog detective called Monty under the name of Louisa Bennet.

Dames of Crime: Josephine Tey

It’s a while since I’ve written a dames or crime post. This one is about the mysterious Scottish author and playwright Elizabeth Mackintosh (1987-1952) also known as Gordon Daviot and Josephine Tey.

The period between the First and Second World Wars was the golden-age of crime fiction, when the Detection Club, a dining society for mystery writers was frequented by authors such as Agatha Christie, Ngaio March and Dorothy L. Sayers. Rules emerged for mystery writing that were later codified into the ‘Ten Commandments’ by British writer Ronald Knox. They included beginning with a body and ending with a reveal of the killer.

It’s an odd thing but when you tell someone the true facts of a mythical tale they are indignant not with the teller but with you. They don’t want to have their ideas upset. It rouses some vague uneasiness in them, I think, and they resent it. So they reject it and refuse to think about it.

The Daughter of Time

Tey was never a member of the Detection Club and she was a breaker of rules when it came to writing mysteries. Her characters did not conform to the usual profiles of the day. Five of Tey’s mystery novels star Alan Grant, a Scotland Yard Inspector and one of the first police protagonists to appear in crime fiction, an ordinary hard working fallible man. The Daughter of Time was voted the greatest mystery of all in 1990 by The British Crime Writers’ Association. In this novel, from a hospital bed, Grant solves the mystery of whether King Richard III of England murdered his nephews.

Tey was interested in exploring the psychology of her characters and the dark side of humanity, she wrote eight mystery novels and showed a fascination for identities and how a persons public face can contradict their true natures. Herself a lone wolf, Tey was said to have three distinct personas to accompany her three names. She did not give interviews, there are few photographs of her in existence, and she never married. The absence of information has led many to examine her novels for insight into the author.

‘She wasn’t fond of being interviewed. And she used to tell a different story each time. When someone pointed out that that wasn’t what she had said last time, she said: “But that’s so dull! I’ve thought of a much better one.” No one ever knew where they were with her. Temperament, they called it, of course.

A Shilling for Candles

Tey’s early and later life was spent in Inverness in the Scottish Highlands, with a stint as a physical education teacher in England in between, an occupation that provided fodder for her 1946 novel Miss Pym Disposes. As a playwright she went by the name of Gordon Daviot, producing a dozen one-act plays and the same number of full length plays. Richard of Bordeaux (1932) had some success in London’s West End running for 14 months and starring John Gielgud.

Someone had said that if you thought about the unthinkable long enough it became quite reasonable.

Brat Farrar

Author Nicola Upson, who initially planned to write a briography of Tey, eventually decided that the intensely private, elusive author was more suited to fiction and made Tey the amateur detective in her 2008 novel An Expert in Murder, as well as in subsequent books in the series. It was not until 2015 that a biography, Josephine Tey: A Life, was written by Jennifer Morag Henderson.

Bibliography

Inspector Grant Novels

  • The Man in the Queue (1929)
  • A Shilling for Candles (1936)
  • The Franchise Affair (1948)
  • To Love and Be Wise (1950)
  • The Daughter of Time (1951)
  • The Singing Sands (1952)

Standalone novels

  • Kif: An Unvarnished History 1929
  • The Expensive Halo 1931
  • Miss Pym Disposes 1946
  • Brat Farrar 1949
  • The Privateer 1952

Biography

  • Claverhouse (1937)

Plays

  • Richard of Bordeaux (1932)
  • The Laughing Woman (1934)
  • Queen of Scots (1934)
  • The Stars Bow Down (1939)
  • Cornelia (1946)
  • The Little Dry Thorn (1946)
  • Rahab (1947)
  • Leith Sands (1947)
  • Valerius (1948)
  • The Balwhinnie Bomb (1949)
  • Sara (1951)
  • Barnharrow (1954, One-act)
  • Dickon (1955)

Book Review: Blackwater by Conn Iggulden

UNESCO initiative World Book and Copyright Day is an annual event to celebrate our love affair with the book, and to encourage people to read. It takes place on April 23, a date that also marks the death of William Shakespeare, Miguel de Cervantes (author of Don Quixote), and Peruvian writer Inca Garcliaso de la Vega. Quick Reads is a World Book Day initiative that aims to engage adults who are not habitual readers with the joy of books by providing bite sized fast paced novellas of not more than 128 pages (15-20,000 words).

I stood in the water and thought about drowning. It’s strange how the sea is always calmer at night. I’ve walked along Brighton beach a hundred times on cold days and the waves are always there, sliding over and over each other. In the dark the water is smooth and black, with just a hiss of noise as it vanishes into the pebbles. You can’t hear it in the day, over gulls and cars and screaming children, but at night the sea whispers, calling you in.

Blackwater by Conn Iggulden is a psychological thriller from Quick Reads 2006. Iggulden is best known for historical fiction including the Emperor series about Julius Ceasar and the Conqueror series about the Mongols of the Asian Steppes.

Protagonist Davey is one of life’s victim. He has a love/hate relationship with the two people he is closest to in life – his brother and his wife. Hw was tormented by his sociopathic brother throughout childhood, and is married to a woman who has spent their entire marriage sleeping with other men. He has always just put up with it, but when his wife sleeps with a local gangster who becomes so obsessed with her he sends his thug around to encourage Davey to leave his wife by breaking his fingers, Davey decides he has had enough and calls on his brother for help.

If you like a quick thrill, Darkwater is seven chapters of dark masculine suspense with an unexpected twist at the end.

Book Review: The Good People by Hannah Kent

On finer days I have been labouring in the garden. Weeding, digging post holes, planting seedlings. Last weekend I spent three hours digging a hole, which I refilled with compost in preparation for planting passionfruit vines in spring. I also moved the compost bin and its foundation 1.5 meters to the left because it was being crowded by the lime tree. I did not see any fairies, but I did end the day physically satisfied with my work, and covered in mud.

The world isn’t ours,’ he said once. ‘It belongs to itself, and that is why it is beautiful.

Whilst I toiled, I listened to The Good People by Hannah Kent, also author of Burial Rites. The Good People is a fairly grim tale set in a 19th century Irish village governed by folklore, superstition, curses and changelings. Where the mischief of the Good People (fairies) is treated with rituals and herbal remedies.

At the start of the novel, the husband of the main protagonist, Nora, drops dead for no apparent reason. She hides her disabled grandson out of shame when the villagers come to her dirt floored cabin for the mourning. The visitors include Nance, an old hag, who turns up to offer her keening services along with herbal remedies for all manner of ailments.

How hidden the heart, Nance thought. How frightened we are of being known, and yet how desperately we long for it.

The death is the first in a series of unexplained happenings, signs that something is not right, and the villagers start to look for explanations in peoples failure to follow correct rituals, or for doing something to upset the Good People. Nora’s disabled grandson Micheal, who cannot walk or talk, becomes the object of blame for the towns ailments. The townspeople come to believe Micheal must be a changeling, the real boy stolen by the Good People. Nora turns to Nance and her remedies for help to restore her grandson to himself.

Some folks are born different, Nance. They are born on the outside of things, with skin a little a thinner, eyes a little keener to what goes unnoticed by most. Their hearts swallow more blood than ordinary hearts; the river runs differently for them.

The new village priest wants to rid the ignorant peasants of their pagan beliefs and does not approve of Nance’s hocus pocus, and he starts to turn the town against her. The two women and Mary, the young maid who helps care for Micheal, form an uneasy outcasts alliance of sorts and set about finding a remedy for Micheal’s state, believing success will restore the communities faith in them. I listened with increasing horror as the poor boy was tortured, knowing that he had become a vehicle for a goal the three woman could not achieve.

Nora had always believed herself to be a good woman. A kind woman. But perhaps, she thought, we are good only when life makes it easy for us to be so. Maybe the heart hardens when good fortune is not there to soften it.

I remember hearing Kent interviewed about the The Good People some time ago. She said the novel was inspired from a story she read in an old British newspaper. In the paper she came across an article about a woman called Anne Roach who was accused of committing a serious crime. She called herself a female doctress, and said she could not be held responsible for the crime because she was only trying to cure someone who was fairy struck, to banish a changeling.

The language and prose in The Good People is evocative, conjuring long forgotten Irish hinterlands, mud, poverty and the credulous belief systems infusing the village and rendering the villagers helpless to their own misfortunes. It’s gothic writing at its best, bringing to light the terrifying reality of being different, or being a woman undefined by a man in the early 1800’s, and of how grief and otherness can undo us.