Book review: That Old Country Music by Kevin Barry

Who doesn’t love an Irish accent?

That Old Country Music is a collection of eleven beautifully written short stories by Kevin Barry. The book is his second volume of short stories and he has also written three novels.

The strongest impulse she had was not towards love but towards that old burning loneliness, and she knew by nature the old tune’s circle and turn – it’s the way the wound wants the knife wants the wound wants the knife.

In the first story a lonely man develops a crush on a Polish waitress at his local cafe and is unprepared for its impact; in another a young Roma girl runs away from a tormented life and finds herself in the care of a kindly old hermit; a writer inherits a cottage from an uncle and finds that his new life transforms him into a ladies man; a vagrant crouches by a dog at the edge of a town and observes people around him whilst he talks to the dog.

He had the misfortune in life to be fastidious and to own a delicacy of feeling. He drank wine rather than beer and favored French films. Such an oddity this made him in the district that he might as well have had three heads up on Dromord Hill.

The prose is lyrical and poetic with a wild humour that explores love, lust, loneliness, desire and doom in the wilds of western Ireland. Barry develops the characters quickly, infusing them with yearning and longing, set against a backdrop of rich descriptions of the environment.

The hills displayed with arrogance the richest of autumn and glowed, and I walked in a state of almost blissful sadness.

I listened to That Old Country Music as an audio book narrated in a lilting brogue, sprinkled liberally with the F$@&k word, by Barry himself and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Book review: Traffic by Robin Gregory

Traffic is a contemporary crime fiction story set in Melbourne and is Robin Gregory’s debut novel.

Private Investigator, Sandi Kent’s ex-girlfriend hires her to scout out and plan the rescue of a sex slave from an inner-city brothel. Simultaneously a lawyer friend hires her to seek out angles to defend a Colombian immigrant charged with murdering another sex worker.

Sandi struggles with a sense of loneliness and finds it difficult to resist her manipulative ex-girlfriends advances, making it appear that she is helping Cassy out for all the wrong reasons. Sandi’s desires, and her deep empathy for the vulnerability of others, weaken her professional boundaries and she soon finds herself in much deeper than she ever intended to go.

Gregory explores difficult themes in Traffic but manages to do so with enough humour to make the story an easy read. Issues such as domestic violence, the underbelly of human trafficking, the sex trade, and drug trafficking are traversed against a backdrop of cosmopolitan Melbourne. The story sets a good pace and Gregory’s voice is quintessentially Australian. I found it to be an enjoyable and entertaining read despite the very serious themes embedded in the story.

Book review: Joan Smokes by Angela Meyer

Joan Smokes is a 68 page novella by Australian author Angela Meyer. Winner of the Mslexia Novella Award (2019), this story is a case of good things come in small packages.

She used to be someone else, but decided to become Joan after she arrived in Vegas, to start again, shut her past out. It’s the 60s and she decides Joan has dark hair, red lipstick and wears floral dresses. Joan is also a smoker, so she buys a packet of cigarettes.

Joan moves forward amongst the casinos and flashing neon, finds a job and meets new people.

She’d seen the Las Vegas  strip in a movie. It is just as technicolor in real life. The radio plays ‘Be My Baby’ by the Ronettes and she flicks it off because love songs are ice. The lights make sound in her eyes. On one sign: the soprano crescendo of pink. On another, a swooshing fan of green-blue.

Her mother always said one man is as good as another. She forgets about Jack, tries to let things go.

You will want to know what Joan is running from, why she is on the edge of a breakdown and why she thinks becoming someone else will make her believe it didn’t happen. A sophisticated and emotional read that will make you wish the story was longer.

Book review: You Again by Debra Jo Immergut

You Again is Edgar Award finalist (for The Captives) Debra Jo Immergut’s second novel about a middle aged woman haunted by herself. I don’t know about you, but if I think I saw my younger self I couldn’t resist the temptation to offer myself some frank and fearless advice about a thing or two.

Abigail Willard keeps meeting her younger self in her old haunts around New York. A talented painter who abandoned her art for marriage and parenthood and an ordinary day job, at first she wonders if she’s having a midlife crisis and hallucinating about her lost youth. Then, as it keeps happening, she wonders if she has some neurological or psychiatric condition and goes to see a shrink and to get brain scans.

Meanwhile she is also contending with her rebelious son and questioning her relationship with her husband.

Journal entries form the narrative as Abigail’s life unfolds and she wonders whether she should warn her younger self about what is going to happen. There are echoes of magical realism in the plot as the narrative takes you from inside Abigail’s head to a doctor who is trying to work out why her patient is having these strange experiences.

You Again combines psychological suspense and fantasy in a meditation on time, existence, consciousness, fate, love, ambition and regret.

Book review: The Survivors by Jane Harper

In The Survivors, Jane Harper takes us to an isolated small town on the Tasmanian coast riddled with a labyrinthe of dangerous caves that fill and empty with the tide. Getting trapped in there at high tide means certain death.

Evelyn Bay is a small, struggling, but close knit community, reliant on tourist visiting for whale watching and diving an old ship wreck in the bay. It has a pub and a police station that is about to be closed because not much happens.

Keiran Elliott left Evelyn Bay years ago, after his brother drowned at sea. He believes his was responsible for what happened to his brother and struggles guilt. He has returned with his wife and baby to visit his parents. Keiran’s father is suffering from early onset dementia and needs care so they are about to sell the family home and move because of this.

The Survivors, three statues commissioned in tribute to the 54 passengers and crew who died in a shipwreck a century earlier, stand as a mythic presence in the town. The waves lap at their feet, almost, but never completely consuming them at high tide. They are a constant reminder of the oceans ferocity, and auger when it is and is not safe to be on the beach.

Everyone knows everyone’s business. Towns people still grieve the losses of some of its members in the crashing waves during a terrible storm a decade earlier. When a second tragedy occurs – a young woman visiting during a break from university who is found dead on the beach – long buried secrets and grievances begin to emerge.

The police investigate the girls death while the townsfolk go wild with speculation on social media. Anger at a newcomer author who bought the house of the local landscaper’s grandmother, and ripped up the garden almost comes to blows in the pub. Animosity and guilt about who’s fault it was that three community members died in the storm all those years ago simmers near the surface, straining long held friendships.

The mystery unfolds as the characters grapple with grief, guilt and regrets that make some stronger, whilst others unravel. Another good read from Jane Harper.

Book review: The Mother Fault by Kate Mildenhall

One word to describe this dystopian novel – gripping. My heart was racing within the first few pages. I listened to it as an audiobook read by Claudia Carvan and turned it on compulsively in every spare minute till the end.

Near future climate changed world. People chipped like pets. One government, The Department controls everything. Mim’s husband goes missing. The Department warns her not to tell anyone, not to go anywhere, or risk her children being taken into care. She’s already told a journalist that Ben is missing in Indonesia.

The world shifted slowly, then so fast, while they watched but didn’t see. They weren’t stupid. Or even oppressed at the beginning. Let the record show that. There were no assassinations. No riots. The people invited the new government to take charge at the ballot box. The two parties had consumed themselves. Left the system wide open for a third option. Reasonable, populated by diverse public figures, backed by both big money and bid ideology. On a platform of innovative and economically viable responses to the climate emergency, a rehaul of the health, housing and disability schemes that would see the most vulnerable members of the community cared for, and a foreign policy that miraculously spoke to fear of the other and fluid borders ideal for capital in and capital out, the new party was humbly triumphant on election night. Simple, elegant. No need for finite portfolios and the bullshit of bureaucracy (their words, appealing to the everyday Australian). Centralised power was the answer. On Department for One Nation.

Mim decides to run. She goes to visit her family home in the country on the pretense of chasing work. The Department know where she is. They call and warns her to go home. Her friend removes the chips from her and her children’s palms, inserts them in some rats she releases into the bush, and Mim and the kids drive away. She soon discovers how serious The Department’s controls are when they visit her family and her friend has ‘an accident’. A house fire.

A strong but flawed female protagonist, protective of her children and desperate to find her husband. Somehow the strange COVID world we are living in now, with ever enhanced technology and increased government rules, makes the already plausible Gilead Esque world created by Mildenhall even easier to imagine into existence.

The narrator, Carvan, executes the audiobook with the skill you’d expect from a good actor. A compelling delivery that brings the characters to life by capturing their emotions and builds an exquisite tension throughout the story.

A brilliantly executed speculative fiction thriller.

Book review: Death in Her Hands by Ottessa Moshfegh

Vesta Gul is an ageing widow who lives in a small cabin on a lake with her dog Charlie. She is a curiosity to the local townsfolk. Out walking in the woods one morning, Vesta finds a note on the ground held down with stones suggesting a woman called Magda has been killed.

Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body. But there was no body. No bloodstain. No tangle of hair caught on the coarse fallen branches, no red wool scarf damp with morning dew festooned across the bushes. There was just the note on the ground, rustling at my feet in the soft May wind. I happened upon it on my dawn walk through the birch woods with my dog, Charlie.

There is no body in sight so Vesta decides to become a sleuth and try to work out what happened to Magda. She begins to concoct Magda’s story by writing it down following instructions on how to write a good mystery. She develops characters with elaborate backstories and conspiracy theories inspired by red herrings. She talks to Charlie and reflects on what her dead husband, Walter might make of her antics.

Reading lots of mysteries is essential. That seemed like ridiculous advice. The last thing anyone should do is stuff her head full of other people’s ways of doing things. That would take all the fun out. Does one study children before copulating to produce one? Does one perform a thorough examination of others’ feces before rushing to the toilet? Does one go around asking people to recount their dreams before going to sleep? No. Composing a mystery was a creative endeavor, not some calculated procedure.

Vesta’s adventure both enthrals and frightens her as she develops a detailed backstories for Magda and all the other characters in her mystery. Walter berates her continually in her head as she goes, as he evidently did in life, and Vesta seems to get some satisfaction out of defying him.

An ax murderer wouldn’t be very quick on his feet, carrying an ax and all. Charlie’s warning would give me time enough to collect my coat and purse, even. I wasn’t worried that I would be hacked to death, fed to the wolves, even if there were wolves out there, which there weren’t. At least none that we’d ever seen. Nor bears. Though there were foxes. But the most they were known to do was break into people’s garbage and make a mess. They were no worse than skunks or raccoons or opossums. Still, I’d taken a butcher knife up to bed with me and had slid it under the mattress. Just in case. Because who knew? Who knew? … And that was what was keeping me awake—not knowing, and wanting to know.

In the absence of human company, Vesta’s imagination recasts her view of the real world. She buys a camouflage onesie online and sets booby traps around her home. The woman becomes more and more unhinged from reality as she attempts to solve the mystery of the note.

Death in Her Hands is the story of an ageing woman facing a life of emptiness who uses her imagination to escape from her solitude.

The book unfolds in long rambling paragraphs across only seven chapters. It is is Ottessa Moshfegh’s third novel (the others being Eileen and My Year of Rest and Relaxation). Death in Her Hands is part mystery, part suspense, and part black comedy.

Book review: The Ruin by Dervla McTiernan

The Ruin is the first book in the Cormac Reilly series by Dervla McTieran. Published in 2018, it is a gritty, atmospheric page turning police procedural.

Rookie copy Cormac Reilly is called out to investigate a domestic in Galway, Ireland in 1993. He is greeted by an under-nourished 15 year old girl at a dilapidated house. Her mother is in bed, dead from an apparent heroin overdose, and she has her much younger brother in her care. Cormac takes the kids to a hospital were the girl disappears and it is revealed the boy has unexplained injuries all over his body.

By 2013, Cormac has risen through the ranks to become a member of an elite anti-terror squad in Dublin. He moves back to Galway to be with his biologist partner, Emma who gets a lucrative research gig there.

Aisling is an ambitious young doctor training to become a surgeon. She lives with her boyfriend Jack. When she discovers she is pregnant, the couple have an intense discussion about whether they should keep the baby. Jack goes out to get some air and clear his head. His body is discovered in the river the next day, and his death declared a suicide.

Jack’s sister Maude, who has been living in Australia for years, arrives back in Ireland and pursues the police to look further into Jack’s death. She does not believe it was suicide. When Aisling meets her she joins Maude in pursuing this line of enquiry. The police view the women as a nuisance.

Cormac finds himself an outsider back in Galway, and is relegated to reviewing cold-case investigations – including the 1993 death he attended as a rookie. It turns our Jack who was found in the river was the little boy Cormac took to the hospital.

Cormac, Aisling and Maude’s trajectories begin to intersect as issues including child abuse, addiction, abortion and corruption are explored.

Book review: Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

Normal programming resumes this week with a book review of Kate Atkinson’s novel, Case Histories, book 1 in the Jackson Brodie series. I listened to this one in audio book format whilst working on the shed renovating iso project. More on that story later.

She should have done science, not spent all her time with her head in novels. Novels gave you a completely false idea about life, they told lies and they implied there were endings when in reality there were no endings, everything just went on and on and on.

In 1970, a girl called Olivia goes missing at night from a tent in her parents back yard. She is never found. A young woman called Laura is brutally murdered in her fathers city law office in 1994, the killer never identified, leaving her father wracked with guilt. An isolated young mother called Shiriley feels trapped with a baby and a demanding husband and takes to her husband with an axe during an argument in 1979. She goes to jail. Her child, given over to her husbands parents has for all intents and purposes, vanished.

The survivors of the tragedies are haunted by unresolved grief.

When you chopped logs with the ax and they split open they smelled beautiful, like Christmas. But when you split someone’s head open it smelled like abattoir and quite overpowered the scent of the wild lilacs you’d cut and brought into the house only this morning, which was already another life.

Ex-cop, and soon to be divorced private investigator Jackson Brodie is pursuing a flight attendant who’s husband believes she is cheating on him. His other case involves searching for an eccentric old ladies missing cats.

Time was a thief, he stole your life away from you and the only way you could get it back was to outwit him and snatch it right back.

Brodie is approached by Olivia’s sisters. They found their sisters toy hidden in their dead fathers belongings and want Brodie to investigate her disappearance thirty years after it occurred. Laura’s father hires Brodie to find the man in a yellow golfing sweater believed to have murdered his daughter. Shirley’s sister asks Brodie to find her niece who disappeared after her sister went to jail.

The seemingly unconnected cases begin to converge.

Doing nothing was much more productive than people thought; Jackson often had his most profound insights when he appeared to be entirely idle. He didn’t get bored, he just went into a nothing kind of place.

The novel jumps back and forth in time and from case to case. The threads are held together by the sense of isolation of each of the characters as they journey to find connection beyond their own tragedies. The reader is challenged to keep track of the many narratives, and compelled by Atkinson’s vivid and funny character sketches that draw the reader to them. Atkinson lightens the sense of grief and loss that permeates the novel with plenty of humour and perceptive insights.

The plot thickens,” he said, and wished he hadn’t said that because it sounded like something from a bad detective novel. “I think we have a suspect.” That didn’t sound much better. “My house has just exploded, by the way.” At least that was novel.

An intelligent and novel detective novel.

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.