Pearl Maya

The Planned List – AWW 2017 Challenge

In no particular order my outstanding reading list is currently:

Pescadors Wake, Katherine Johnson (Tasmanian)

The Butterfly Man, Heather Rose (Tasmanian)

Burial Rites, Hannah Kent

Only Daughter, Anna Snoekstra

The God in the Ink, Kathryn Lomer (Tasmanian)

What Alice Forgot, Liane Moriaty

Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil, Melina Marchetta

An Isolated Incident, Emily Maguire

The Philosopher’s Doll, Amanda Lohrey (Tasmanian)

Frantic, Katherine Howell

The Good Daughter,  Honey Brown

The Alphabet of Light and Dark, Danielle Wood

The Museum of Modern Love, Heather Rose (Tasmanian)

A Trifle Dead, Livia Day (Tasmanian)

Janet Frame, Gina Mercer (Tasmanian)

It is subject to being changed or added to as the year goes by.

Note: The definition of who is Tasmanian is a bit flexible, perhaps in the same way as who is Australian. The challenge acknowledges this. But just as Australians frequently adopt and rebrand New Zealanders once they are successful, I may be doing the same with some folks from the big island. If anyone on my list that I have co-opted to being Tasmanian objects to the label I am more than happy to change it … and still read the book with a positive mindset.

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Drylands – Thea Astley

Drylands the small outback town is dry – dry from drought and dry from a lack of opportunity, of growth, of regeneration. “Drylands” the book is nothing like that at all.

“Drylands” is the rich telling of the stories of comings and stayings and goings from the small town. The voices are as diverse as the characters. Time goes forwards and backwards and around again. There is a cup of tea for every occasion, and a beer for the rest.

Drylands is no place for a woman. And while the men certainly do better in this isolated dot on the map, their choice of coping methods – from alcohol to abuse to dreaming to delusion – perhaps leaves them personally no better in the end. People with open minds find nothing to feed them in this part of the world so it is those with small minds that do best, and the traditional image of ocker man, with his love of beer with a meal of meat and three veg is portrayed as the man with the smallest mind of all.

Not all of the men are bad, and bad isn’t even the right word – perhaps devoid of the opportunity or need to change ‘ist’ world views that were more common fifty years ago (racist, misogynist, sexist, you get the idea) would be more accurate.On the other hand, they know that while they stay in this town, there won’t be a need to change.

As a reader beware of the men that aren’t like that, the one’s that can see beyond the horizon, for they are the men likely to break your heart. Well two of them especially. It would be a spoiler to add more.

The women who live in Drylands are like the gardens that many of them try and cultivate – surviving but only just. There aren’t enough women left in the town for them to have real friendships – a bad word against one might see you with no friends left. And so they fall into routines with the other women in the same way they have routines for the rest of their lives of working and cooking and cleaning and mothering. Some still have dreams, only to see them go. Others are only dreaming within the very contained options provided by their husbands.  Every now and then you meet someone with a dream of a life that could be, and one that just might work.

Just as there is a range of characters, the reader should prepare themselves to experience a range of responses. A short book yes, but powerfully written and there will be laughter and disgust and tears.

The outback of Australia is a wide open space and within that space, a wide range of people and experiences await. Astley’s “Drylands” is a long way from the romantic view of many and if for no other reason, is a must read.

“Drylands” was the winner of the 2000 Miles Franklin Award.

Medea’s Curse – Anne Buist

Trigger Warning: This book involves themes of mental health, mothers who kill their children as well as child abuse. This review does not dwell on the specifics of any, but all are mentioned. For people who need to discuss these matters further, Lifeline can be contacted on 13 11 14.

Medea’s Curse is brilliant. For much of the book Buist’s main character Forensic Psychiatrist Natalie King is involved in a massive juggling act: of her clients, of her personal life, of her past. And she is being stalked by someone who means business. It is a sometimes manic ride.

As the first book of which I am guessing will be a series, King is introduced to the reader beautifully – letting us know what we need to know as we need to know it. In some ways King is a bit stereotypical – a strong, sassy professional – but when have crime readers let stereotypes get in their way? On the novel line, King has her own mental health issues, is the default owner of a cockatoo that quotes Bob Dylan, and on weekends sings in a pub band.

The discussion of mother’s who kill their children is handled sensitively. There is mention of the titled Medea as well as real life cases and these are intertwined with King’s clients. Throughout the novel Buist presents us with any number of reasons as to why this crime might take place. Further, there is a range of ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’, or even culpability, in the cases that King is handling. Even the legal difference between infanticide and murder has ramifications in relation to sentencing and this becomes relevant to a character.

Sexual abuse of children is a large theme that is unavoidable and, like the above discussion is handled very sensitively. It is only in one small scene that Buist provides specific details of the crime, and to be fair even then much the focus is on the reaction of the child rather than what is being done to her. Nonetheless, those couple of sentences were confronting and I needed to put the book down for a few minutes to decompress. It was unpleasant and I am not pretending otherwise but in many ways I would argue that it was in context and necessary to the book.

Setting that one incident aside, this book is not part of the popular crime porn category where writers seem to try to outdo themselves with blood or maggots or psychopathic motives. Sadly these characters and their circumstances seem very real. On a more positive side, so do the rest of the characters that populate the book whether they be the police officers, office staff or pub mates. Even more so, King appears very well written and definitely goes beyond a two-dimensional character. I particularly look forward to spending more time with her in future reading.

Unlike most crime novels that provide little past a good read, Buist seems to enjoy challenging the response of readers to issues already mentioned as well as the overall nature of truth v justice: what is to be done when the community response to a circumstance may not correlate with a court’s response; how does motive or background change things; is it alright to do wrong to get a right outcome; and what is truth anyway.

As is obvious from my opening line, I really enjoyed this book – the characters, the storyline, the ending – which I am not even going to touch on – all of it. Due to some of the themes, and a relatively detailed sex scene, I perhaps would be careful in passing it onto younger readers but you would know the person better than I do. I appreciate that a lot of YA fiction includes sex scenes and this book could prove to be a great conversation starter on the ethics of circumstances which, in many ways, we see in the newspapers ever day.


Past the Shallows – Favel Parrett

There are two different kinds of Tasmanian winters. The first involves wood fires, comfort food, red wine or hot chocolate, snow fluttering down outside and being snug. The second is grey skies, a bitterly cold wind that will permeate every layer of clothing you are wearing, rain that feels like a razor as it hits your exposed skin and a bleakness that never seems to end. ‘Past the Shallows’ is the second sort of winter.

Set around the lives of two young boys struggling with a father who has long since checked out, a mother that is dead and an older brother who is doing is very best not to get stuck in the town, in the life that he seems destined to live ‘Past the Shallows’ is bleak, it is raw, it is visceral. But if I may be permitted to extend the winter metaphor a moment longer, it also has moments in which there is a warmth to snuggle into, a warmth that provides brief moments of hope, of respite from the brutality of the rest of the novel.

Parrett enlivens the reader’s senses throughout the story – you feel the chill of the water, you smell the old cigarette smoke, you taste the extra sweet cups of tea, you can see the beauty of the landscape, including the magical Aurora Australis. On every page, you are physically drawn into they story and as such it is almost impossible not to become emotionally involved in the future of Harry and Miles.

‘Beyond the Shallows’ is told in stages, some present tense, some past tense sections filling in the background of how things became as they are. The most important backstory involves Harry and Miles’ mother. I was greedy to know it all but Parrett only provided periodic glimpses, some clear, some less so. It was fantastic.

The edition I read (it had the cover featured above) includes a section for readers groups. I haven’t started that yet so as not to be influenced in writing this review. Nonetheless, even without the prompts, I certainly have a lot I would love to talk about – and more importantly to hear other people’s perspectives on how they experienced the story. It would almost be worth setting up a group just to get together with others to discuss this book alone.

Despite the bleakness, ‘Beyond the Shadows’ is an incredible read. It is a beautiful story told with skill and class. There are heroes and there are villains but most of all there are people perhaps doing the best they can with what they have.

A Short History of Richard Kline – Amanda Lohrey

An interesting and sometimes challenging read. The story is the emotional and spiritual journey of a man, as the title suggests, named Richard Kline, from childhood to middle age. There are some details about major events including travel and dating but the undeniable focus is on the internal story of Rick’s life.

I haven’t read any of Amanda Lohrey’s work before so I am not in a position to comment on the quality of the writing in comparison to other books but that will be rectified during the challenge.  Additionally “A Short History of Richard Kline” is in a genre that I find hard to describe (‘Allegory’ maybe) and I am not very familiar with. If I had to draw comparisons it could be Richard Bach’s “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” crossed with “The Adventures of Christian Rosy Cross” or “The Glade Within the Grove” by David Foster. This book could easily be put into the over-arching category of  ‘Literary Fiction’ but I am sure there is another more narrow category that would be more descriptive.

The book overflows with themes of science v religion, philosophy v psychology, reality v the imagined (both the imagination of dreams as well as the expected version of reality – what the world expects us to do, how to react, how to present ourselves) all of which swirl around the ideas of ‘who am I’ and ‘why am I here?’. Some of the characters appear to be uninterested in answering these questions, or perhaps already have answers that sit easily with their psyches or a pre-existing satisfaction with their lot in life. Other characters research, seek experiences or read extensively either in a search or to confirm their existing points of view. There were times that the latter was used a little too much – in the same way that some novelists want to squeeze every piece of research they have across into their novel, it sometimes felt like Lohrey was referencing every book she had read in relation to this one. It is a small point but I don’t think anything would have been lost by losing one or two mentions.

I am sure that much could be made about the protagonist being male but as I am not one, I am not in a position to comment on the accuracy of Lohrey’s presentation. And Rick Kline is in no way an everyman, at least in my experience, so I am not sure this specific example of masculinity could be extrapolated further than a limited group of people ie those like Rick. I am really happy to be shown to be incorrect on this, as I said I am not a man.

One choice I did find interesting was the use of first person as well as third person limited, points of view. Lohrey swapped between the perspectives every few chapters, in what was purported to be a memoir. The change was obvious, clunky even, and I am not sure anything was achieved by using the technique. A third person omniscient would have obviously given the narrator an ability to give insight into other characters and how they perceived or interacted with Rick but that option wasn’t available to the third person limited. Perhaps, given that Rick admits himself to be a poor narrator, it offers a more reliable perspective but I am not sure, given the difference between the two voices was negligible.

After reading the novel I am still not sure whether I like Rick but maybe that isn’t relevant or necessary. At some point surely we have all gone through stages of internal growth and while our decisions probably won’t be the same as Rick’s, the questioning and the search for answers is something many will be able to relate to.

This is a book that is certainly worthy of a read – especially if, like me, you don’t step into the genre often. It has the ability to challenge existing ideas about life and the universe but I read it cover to cover in a little over four hours so while stopping to meditate on some of the ideas may certainly appeal to some, at the same time it was an easy read. And the problems I have noted in relation to point of view and ‘over referencing’ are really only minor points and they won’t influence a reader’s overall appreciation of the story.

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