Book review: Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason

Sorrow and Bliss is one of those books that straddles commercial and literary fiction. The story made me laugh out loud one moment and cry the next. 

First novels are autobiography and wish fulfilment. Evidently, one’s got to push all one’s disappointments and unmet desires through the pipes before one can write anything useful.

Food writer, Martha, is reflecting on her life soon after separating from her husband and about six months after finally getting an accurate diagnosis and treatment for a mental illness that has plagued her for all of her adult life. She reflects on the the two decades that have passed since ‘a little bomb went off’ in her brain at seventeen.

Everything is redeemable, Martha. Even decisions that end up with you unconscious and bleeding in a pedestrian underpass, like me. Although ideally, you want to figure out the reason why you keep burning your own house down.

Martha’s telling of her life is deadpan and comically tragic. She is not a particularly likeable character, yet she becomes an endearing narrator as the reader comes to understand her struggle with her own behaviour and identity.

Everything is broken and messed up and completely fine. That is what life is. It’s only the ratios that change. usually on their own.

Sorrow and Bliss is a love story set in London and Oxford. It is a novel about mental illness and it’s effects on sufferers and those who love them, including their uniquely dysfunctional middle class families. 

After that, Nicholas got up, stretched, and told me I could have his spot because he just remembered a girl he need to make amends with because his final act before rehab was putting a nine iron through her windscreen after taking more than his recommended daily intake of methamphetamine. ‘Which I discover is non. Back shortly.’

Various doctors, psychologists and prescriptions have failed to help Martha. She and those around her fall back on the belief that she is simply too sensitive, and a bit difficult. Martha searches for answers, knowing that something isn’t right. Her experience exposes the fallibility of the medical profession that often gets things quite wrong, and through doing so can change the course of a persons life in ways that can be quite damaging.

Suffering is unavoidable, the only thing one gets to choose is the backdrop

Interestingly Martha’s illness is never named. I found this both liberating and frustrating. It forces the reader to understand her issues purely from her perspective on the world and the lived experience of her illness. It also frustrated that very human drive to label and categorise things.

I was the victim, and victims of course are allowed to behave however they like.

Book review: Pig Island by Mo Hayder

Grisly. A faith healing cult on an isolated island divided by a fence and inhabited by wild pigs, the preacher gone mad and isolated away from his flock with his disabled daughter on one side, the rest of the faithful on the other. A story starts circulating on the mainland that a half human-half animal creature has been seen wandering the island.

Everyone hates him. Me – I think I can see the sun shine when he bends over.

Journalist Joe Oakes is invited by the Psychogneic Healing Ministries to visit the island in order to debunk the myth that a devil is running around. The cult members don’t realise that Joe has history with the mad minister. Years previously he wrote an article under a pseudonym calling the minister a sham healer. 

What unfolds is a gruesome, page turning thriller with a twist that will make your skin crawl. If you can’t stomach a bit of graphic violence it may not be for you. It may also give you nightmares.

Pig Island is the fourth novel by Mo Hayder, the pen name for Beatrice Bastin who died recently from complications of Motor Neurone Disease. Pig Island was nominated for a Barry Award for Best British crime novel and a CWA dagger.

Hayder wrote ten thrillers, earning herself the title of ‘queen of fear’. There is also another due out in 2022 written under the name Theo Clare:

Jack Caffery series

  • Birdman (2000)
  • The Treatment (2001)
  • Ritual (2008)
  • Skin (2009)
  • Gone (2010)
  • Poppet (2013)
  • Wolf (2014)

Stand-alone novels

  • Tokyo (2004), also published as The Devil of Nanking (2010)
  • Pig Island (2006)
  • Hanging Hill (2011)

Writing as Theo Clare

  • The Book of Sand (2022)

Book review: Memorial by Bryan Washington

Benson and Mike’s relationship has never been easy and now it’s in a rut. Their fights with words and fists end in sex. Each is unsure about what their relationship is or where its going. Memorial is a modern story of the relationship between two gay men – one Japanese, one a black man – and their relationships with their families.

That loving a person means letting them change when they need to. And letting them go when they need to. And that doesn’t make them any less of a home. Just maybe not one for you. Or only for a season or two. But that doesn’t diminish the love. It just changes forms.

Sexuality, race, class, trauma and grief are the subjects of Memorial by Bryan Washington.   The story is written in three parts across two locations – Houston and Osaka – and told from the perspective of the two men.  

You’re taking up space in another human’s brain, she said. You’re a foreign entity. A parasite. That’s a lot by itself.

Memorial opens from Benson’s perspective. His partner, Mike has decided to go back to Japan to see his dying father. Mike’s mother, Mitsuko, who Benson has never met arrives to stay the day before Mike leaves. Benson finds himself sharing a house with a Japanese woman he doesn’t know in a predominately black neighbourhood in the throes of gentrification. Mitsuko is disappointed that her son has run off to be with her ex-husband just as she arrives and resists Benson’s attempts to draw her out.

He came out of my body. He’s a homosexual. He left his mother with a stranger. I’ve already got everything I need to know.

Mike arrives in Japan and takes up residence with his estranged, dying father, Eiju, who runs a bar and pretends nothing is wrong. Mike communicates via sporadic text messages with Benson and equally sporadic conversions with his father.

There are a lot of spaces in this novel. The unanswered questions and awkward silences between characters draw your attention to what is not said, revealing that there is as much, if not more meaning in the unspoken than the spoken. A beautifully written insight into the ordinary life of men.

Book review: Seed to Dust. A Gardener’s Story by Marc Hamer

staghound dog staning in the Yarra river. River bank behind shows tall eucalypts and greenery
Natures landscaping

If lockdown continues for much longer, I may well complete most of that list of outstanding jobs that has been hanging around, some for longer than I care to admit. When I go for my daily walks in the forest I notice what a superb landscaper nature is. She throws together trees and shrubs and rocks and delicate flowers to create a display of visual perfection that I strive to emulate in parts of my constructed garden.

There is a patch of gravel beside my house that has been largely unchanged for over twenty years as I have never been quite sure what to do with it. The area is in a cutting and shaded and damp in winter, dry in summer. I had an inspiration after discovering some discarded pavers beneath the house and set to work over two weekends.

I often listen to audio books whilst working in the garden and chose Seed and Dust. A Gardener’s Story by Marc Hamer. His story was the perfect companion. Told over a twelve month period when Marc tended elderly Miss Cashemere’s garden on her country estate, the story is a meditation on gardening, nature and life.

In my imagination, this life has been a path with many, many forks, each one a choice to be made. Each unchosen route fading from view as it became the past, its destination unknowable. No destination is really known until you arrive, and then it becomes merely a point along the way — a vague place rarely planned for, simply the start of another adventure. The only thing to do is be happy with the outcome, whatever it is. The path leads to the end, as all paths do.

The story meanders month by month through the seasons honing in on minute changes on the estate. Marc’s work in the garden reflects his love for nature and his distant yet intimate relationship with its owner who observes him and occasionally interacts with him is tentative yet tender. Reflections on nature are interspersed with Marc’s reflections on his own life and philosophical observations of humanity and what gardening has taught him about life. It is a beautifully written story. I really enjoyed listening to the rambling baritone of actor Owen Teale reading the audio.

By the time I got to the end I had fallen in love with the garden the man and the voice and started listening to it again.

Seed to Dust was shortlisted for the Wainwright Price in 2021 (winner to be announced next week on 7th September). I understand that the printed novel is beautifully illustrated and have ordered a copy for my shelves as well as one I have sent as a gift to someone I think will enjoy it also.

Book review: The Feathered Flames by Alexandra Overy

These Feathered Flames is a young adult fantasy reimagining the Russian folktale The Firebird. Alexandra Overy’s debut novel is about sibling relationships and politics. Twin sisters Izaveta and Asya are born into the royal family and separated at age ten. One is destined to become the next queen of Tourin and the other chosen to train as the new (reluctant) Firebird whose role is to ensure magic in the realm remains balanced. 

How was it that her sister had been taken to live with a monster, but somehow Izaveta had become one? A creature molded by her mother’s manipulations, by the constant betrayals of the court. Asya might have a monster beneath her skin, but Izaveta had one in her heart—in her very essence. So much a part of herself that she no longer knew how to separate one from the other.

When the girls are seventeen the queen dies unexpectedly. The Firebird, Asya, receives a Calling that the queen’s death was due to a magical imbalance and returns to the palace. The princesses must step into their respective roles prematurely and become reacquainted with one another as they work out who they can trust and who killed their mother. 

Whispers are enough to bring down a queendom

The fantasy genre is a fun way to escape the world entirely whilst still exploring the human condition, good, evil, power and morality. These Feathered Flames unfolds from the perspective of each of the sisters with political intrigue, swash buckling action scenes, magic and a little girl on girl romance. The story ends with a cliffhanger in preparation for book 2.

Book review: Edie Richter is Not Alone by Rebecca Handler

Rebecca Handler’s debut novel Edie Richter is Not Alone explores Alzheimer’s and the impact of euthanasia on families. Edie, her mother and sister care for their father/husband with early onset Alzheimers. When he no longer recognises her and stops eating Edie decides to suffocate her father without telling anyone.

After Dad’s diagnosis, Mom started labeling things and let Dad grow a beard. She went to a baby store and bought plastic child-protection locks for the kitchen. Just so he won’t stab me, she said, as I wrestled with one of them, trying to get a corkscrew out from a drawer. You remember Tanya from my walking group? Her mother attacked the cleaning lady and they had to move her into a home. 

After the funeral Edie and her husband, Oren, relocate from San Francisco to Perth, Australia. The story unfolds with dark humour as Edie explores her new home and is incrementally undone by her dark secret. She murdered her own father. Eadie’s behaviour becomes increasingly unpredictable and outlandish. The story is a well crafted, if discomforting, study of a woman unravelling due to her own lack of insight into her very complicated grief. Oren scrabbles around in fruitless frustration trying to penetrate her emotional defences and help.

I thought that life was about moving from one thing to another, all the previous things falling down behind you, but I was beginning to see this was not the case at all. That in fact every action, every thought, and every word uttered, they all stayed with you and formed a sort of jumbled collage

I found this novel morbidly compelling, a little voyeuristic and viscerally uncomfortable. It is a study of a woman’s mental and emotional disintegration resulting from her inability to open up to others about what pains her the most. She pushes away those closest to her and behaves in such appalling ways that she infuriates others who begin to believe she really is either bad or mad. As Edie becomes more and more isolated her realtionships and inner life fray. Eventually something has to give. 

A challenging, engaging and thought provoking read.

Book review: The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson

I don’t read a lot of young adult fiction, but enjoy it almost without fail when I do. The Art of Being Normal is a story about a couple of teenagers on the outer. David is on the cusp of puberty and hasn’t told his parents that he is transgender – they just think he’s gay.

Leo is the new kid at school. He’s from the wrong side of the tracks and there are rumours he was kicked out of his previous school for doing something terrible. Most of the kids avoid him as they think he’s dangerous. David decides to try and befriend him. Leo doesn’t want (nor think he needs) friends and just wants to be left alone. His councillor talks to him about anger management and thinks he would benefit from making friends.

Participating?’ I ask, screwing up my face. ‘Participating in what?

Jenny sighs again. ‘In life, Leo. I want you to start participating in life.’

Author Lisa Williams was inspired to write the story after working in the national health service in England in a department focussed on helping teenagers who are questioning their gender identity. I would be interested to know the perspective of someone with lived experience, but for me it was a refreshing read. Diversity of representation is an important progression in fiction – stories like this did not have exist in mainstream fiction until quite recently. We all want to be ‘seen’ and being reflected in fiction contributes to that sense.

For someone so convinced that life isn’t fair, she plays an awful lot of bingo.

Told in first person, The Art of Being Normal is a funny and moving story about class, coming of age, and coming out in all its multi-colours. Told with plenty of surprising plot twists, the story is beautifully and sensitively written and had me laughing out loud in places. A great book for young people who don’t fit the mould and anyone who wants to engender a greater understanding and empathy for difference and diversity.

Book review: Digging Up Dirt by Pamela Hart

Thought I’d lighten things up a bit this week with a cozy mystery. Cozies are an easy read that can be gobbled up without any uncomfortable feelings, whilst still offering satisfying twists and turns. Digging Up Dirt also includes a splash of simmering romance.

Nothing like the builder digging up bones to halt the work on your renovation. TV researcher Poppy McGowan needs to find out if the bones are human or animal so she can get on with finishing her house. When archaeologist, Dr Julieanne Weaver, whom Poppy doesn’t like, interferes and slaps a heritage order over the property because she thinks the bones a significant Poppy is really annoyed. But then Julieanne is found murdered onsite, face down in the excavation dressed in heels and an evening frock, and things get really complicated.

Pamela Hart is a prolific author who has written more than 35 books and successfully crosses the genre divide. She is best known for her historical fiction (The Soldiers Wife, The War Bride, A Letter from Italy and The Desert Nurse).

Hart has also penned speculative fiction (Ember and Ash)and children’s books under the name Pamela Freeman as well as being an accomplished scriptwriter for ABC kids. I’ve done a few of the online courses she has written for the Australian Writers Centre as well, which have all been of good quality. She’s no slouch!

Digging Up Dirt is Hart’s first mystery novel and it’s a fun Australian read (or listen to the audio book). 

Book review: Hinton Hollow Death Trip by Will Carver

The devil made me do it.

Fear is my greatest tool. It can be used to make a person do almost anything. You can take education, information, motivation and throw it all away, fear is the only thing you require. It is a slow and deadly poison. And it is effective.

Detective Sergeant Pace flees London to return to his hometown of Hinton Hollow for some respite after the trauma of his previous case. Pace’s shadow follows him, enveloping the idyllic small town in darkness and creating disarray in the community. Hinton Hollow Death Trip is the third Carver novel featuring Pace (see Good Samaritans and Nothing Important Happened Today) but could also be read as a stand alone.

The story is a noirish pulp meditation on what can happen when we abandon our values and give into our darkest parts, unleashing the monster within driven by our disappointments, bitterness, resentment and jealousies.

This is how evil works. I just have to get you started. What you do with that feeling is entirely down to you.

The unique twist in this tale is the narrator. Evil. Evil takes great pleasure insinuating itself into the cracks of people’s goodness, prodding at their insecurities and encouraging them to indulge the more selfish, destructive and violent elements of their nature. The message here is that we all have this capacity for destruction in us, but we make choices in response to experiences that determine whether we indulge our malevolent sides or keep turning toward the good in ourselves and others. Evil encourages the characters of Hinton Hollow to indulge their blackness and cheat, steal and kill.

Where everything happened for a reason. A leap of faith. Detective Sergeant Pace is no good. Detective Sergeant Pace is a footnote. Detective Sergeant Pace is a small story. 

In keeping with Will Carvers style, Hinton Hollow Death Trip, its cast and their behaviour leave the reader feeling queezy, despite the macabre content being tempered with equally dark humour. The characters are outrageous but believable and the narrative has a way of making the reader reflect on their own dark corners. 

This is not a story for the squeamish so if you can’t stomach a bit of graphic violence, stick with the cosies. It seems the writing of the story was also uncomfortable for Carver. Apparently the manuscript landed in the bin twice before Carver felt it was good enough to call complete. 

Some people are more comfortable in the dark. Some seek it out. Some thrive there…

Book review: Exit by Belinda Bauer

I used to love old British cop shows like The Bill, Inspector Morse and Taggart. British crime shows are memorable for slow-moving mystery plots and complex characters. Belinda Bauer’s crime novels are similar.

Despite sounding like a juxtaposition, Bauer’s most recent novel, Exit, is a hilarious crime thriller.

Amanda was at his shoulder now. ‘What is it?’ she said, but Felix couldn’t speak because all the words he’d ever known seemed to be whirling around inside his skull like bingo balls.
The ones he needed finally dropped slowly from his numb lips.
‘We killed the wrong man.’

Seventy-five year old widower Felix Pink is a member of the Exiteers, a secret group that supports the right to die by baring witness to the suicide of terminally ill patients then disposing of any evidence to ensure their deaths appear natural. Everything goes horribly wrong when Felix and new young Exiteer, Amanda, accidentally help the wrong patient to die.

The second voice in the story is PC Calvin Bridge, a small town policeman, and in his own eyes a failed detective. Calvin has no confidence in his own abilities. He also hoards a shameful secret past.

Even now, if she spotted Calvin from any distance, Shirley made a point fo glowering at him. And if she were with somebody else, she’d turn to them and say something, and then that person would glower at him too, which made him feel like a bad person – which he knew he wasn’t – so if he ever spotted Shirley before she spotted him, he always just hid.

A comedy of errors unfolds as Felix tries to find out whether he is guilty of murder or something more sinister is afoot, and Calvin finds himself doing the detective work he’s been avoiding.

According to British author Bauer, crime novels are about how the stories of our lives can be suddenly changed by the misdeeds of others. Life is a river and crime the rocks – it is when our lives hit a rock that we find out if we are life’s swimmers or sinkers. Bauer’s novels focus on survival and recovery after a calamity.

Baur has a knack for crafting original, oddball characters that endear the reader to them. Exit is a delightful, hilarious and farcical look at life and death, the invisibility of ageing, friendship, morality and loyalty.

Exit is Bauer’s ninth crime novel. I have written about the author before. See my review of The Shut Eye here